Last week’s news cycle was dominated by two criminal cases: Dominique Strauss-Kahn (or “DSK” as some in the media have affectionately dubbed him to avoid linguistic effort) and Casey Anthony (if you haven’t heard of this case, welcome back from that research trip in Antarctica). Strauss-Kahn has been in the preliminary stages of being charged while the Anthony case has reached the exhausting challenge of jury selection, but both demonstrate a major conundrum within the U.S. Constitution: How does one balance freedom of the press with the right to a fair trial?
The French are up in arms (not literally) about the “perp walk” that Strauss-Kahn was paraded on after his arrest. In France, this is viewed as unfair to defendants, as it casts them as guilty. Perp walks are common in American justice and could certainly be argued as unduly prejudicial, but what has really gone over the edge is the media frenzy that has covered the story. In addition to the massive onslaught of suppositions (some have even mentioned the words “serial rapist”), reporters and pundits have clearly painted an unfriendly narrative of “DSK.”
While I am no friend of the Messr. Strauss-Kahn, one only need look to the south at the Anthony trial to see the effects of a media frenzy. The trial teams in Florida have been at wits end trying to find an impartial jury. The massive media spectacle (much of which can be traced back to CNN’s Nancy Grace, who seemed to spout biased speculation on the case every night for months on end) has clearly endangered Anthony’s right to a fair trial.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution makes clear that no law shall abridge the freedom of the press. However, the Supreme Court has found that this freedom can be limited if there is a sufficient danger. Interestingly, rulings regarding civil or criminal trials have become shifting lines in the sand and generally focus on the right of access, not the right to publish.
While the First Amendment gets all of the fanfare (demonstrating the power of a well-crafted lead when writing), we also have the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments that are just as important. It’s great to have free speech, but if one can be unfairly imprisoned or punished by the courts, the speech ends up only being heard by cellmates. As a result, our right to a fair trial is also a vital part of American life.
It is hard to argue that high profile trials do not put these Constitutional rights in conflict with one another. Which begs the question: Which is more important, the public’s need to know or the individual’s right to fair judgment? I’m guessing the answer depends on how guilty we think the person is. Luckily, we have former-prosecutor Nancy Grace's "Swift Justice" to guide us in this evaluation.
Blogger: Matt McCusker