After Fifty Years, Nebraska Reviewing Bar-Press Guidelines

Members of the Bench Media Committee of the Nebraska State Bar Foundation at work in April 2019 at a meeting in the Nebraska Capitol in Lincoln. (Courtesy Nebraska State Bar Foundation)
Scott Stewart
The Daily Record

The voluntary guidelines that describe an understanding among legal professionals and journalists about what is appropriate and not appropriate for public dissemination is being reviewed five decades after they were established. 

A committee of the Nebraska State Bar Foundation is examining whether the document remains relevant in today’s news environment, according to a joint news release from the foundation and the Nebraska Judicial Branch.

Committee members will look at whether revisions are needed to Nebraska’s Bar-Press Guidelines, which act as a voluntary code of conduct for news media intended to preserve the right of an accused to a fair trial and to avoid the risk of creating prejudice.

The guidelines outline information that is typically appropriate to disclose, providing journalists with a formal description of what is commonly expected when interacting with the court system. They also describe inappropriate actions, such as predictions of trial outcomes and the contents of purported confessions. The document also describes rules for photography, such as stating that it’s inappropriate for law enforcement to deliberately pose a person in custody for the media.

“The members of the bar and the news media recognize the desirability of continued joint efforts in attempting to resolve any areas of differences that may arise in their mutual objective of assuring to all Americans both the correlative constitutional rights to freedom of speech and press and to a fair trial,” according to the guidelines, which were established in June 1970 by a panel of judges, journalists and attorneys.

Nebraska Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey Funke said that work will begin in 2020 on a thorough review and update, if necessary, based on a review conducted by the Bench Media Committee of the Nebraska State Bar Foundation, which was created in 2016 as a subcommittee of the Public Education Outreach Promoting Law and Equity Committee.

“The Guidelines have functioned well for the past 50 years, but technology has gotten ahead of both journalists and courts,” Funke said in a release.

There’s no mention of Twitter in the Bar-Press Guidelines, or the impact of having easily searched news archives accessible online. 

Funke said the hope is to have a revised version of the Guidelines before the 50th anniversary of the release of the original document.

The review committee includes representatives of the legal profession and news gathering organizations across Nebraska. 

It will be led by Supreme Court Justice Jeff Funke. Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov and Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley will be joined by experienced litigator Melanie Whittamore-Mantzios of Wolfe Snowden Hurd Ahl Sitzmann Tannehill & Hahn LLP and media law attorney Shawn Renner of Cline Williams Wright Johnson & Oldfather LLP, whose clients include Media of Nebraska.

Journalists on the panel include news director Jacque Harms of KNOP in North Platte, reporter Maunette Loeks of the Scottsbluff Star-Herald, reporter Lori Pilger of the Lincoln Journal Star, producer Bill Kelly of Nebraska Educational Television and retired KETV news director Rose Ann Shannon Johnson. Janet Bancroft, public information officer for the Nebraska Judicial Branch, will also serve with Trial Court Services Director Sheryl Connolly.

In addition, the larger Bench Media Committee includes Mike Flood, owner of Big Apple Radio & News and former speaker of the Legislature; Leigh Anne Retelsdorf, a Douglas County District Court judge; Derek Weimer, a judge of the 12th Judicial District in Nebraska’s panhandle; Jeff Wightman, a Dawson County judge in the 11th Judicial District; Todd Cooper, a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald; and an ex-officio member, Carole McMahon-Boies, administrator of the Nebraska Supreme Court Administrative Attorney Services Division.

Bancroft, the spokesperson for the Judicial Branch, said that the review committee has already met a few times and is including the broader group in discussions.

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