Free Press: Media of Nebraska Works to Protect Access to Public Information


A display case telling the history of Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart can be found in the front entrance of the College of Journalism and Mass Communication in Andersen Hall on the campus of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. The landmark Supreme Court case found that prior restraint on media coverage during criminal trials is unconstitutional. The case came from the trial of Erwin Charles Simants, who was later convicted of killing six people at their home in Sutherland in 1975. (Photo by Scott Stewart)
By 
Scott Stewart
The Daily Record

Journalists might take for granted their right to report utterances made in open court, but they have the organized efforts of Nebraska me­dia outlets to thank for a landmark Supreme Court decision establish­ing that right.

The media coalition came togeth­er to fight a North Platte judge’s or­der in 1975 to stop the publication and broadcasting of accounts of a confession or other facts “strongly implicative” of guilt in a Sutherland murder case.

The court ruled the next year in Nebraska Press Association et. al v. Stuart, Judge et. al. that the judge’s gag order was unconstitutional, not­ing that pervasive, adverse pretrial publicity doesn’t inevitably lead to an unfair trial. That landmark deci­sion became one of the cornerstones of media law, and it demonstrated the power of collective action by the state’s media organizations – both print and broadcast outlets.

The nonprofit group Media for Nebraska was solidified as part of those efforts, and it is made up of five voting members: Nebraska Broadcasters Association, Nebraska Press Association, Nebraska Daily Publishers Association, the Lincoln Journal Star and the Omaha World-Herald. (The Daily Record is a member of the Nebraska Press Association.)

“A lot of the issues involved now are access issues,” said Rose Ann Shannon, a retired news director for KETV who was actively involved with Media of Nebraska. “There are decisions made by government of­ficials at all levels of government, from school boards up to state gov­ernment, where information that we deem to be public records are with­held or legislation is attempted to be passed that would infringe upon those basic rights.” 

Dave Bundy, editor of the Journal Star, said Media of Nebraska pro­motes unity and provides a benefit for both small publications and larg­er outlets. He said he uses shared legal advice regularly, and smaller outlets often don’t have other legal resources to navigate issues that come up during newsgathering.

“It helps us punch above our indi­vidual weights on a lot of the issues that matter to all of us,” Bundy said. “We don’t always agree on every­thing, but there’s certainly a lot of common ground that we do agree on, and Media of Nebraska helps us stand up on those issues.”

The organization also employs lobbyists to track proposals in the Nebraska Legislature that would re­strict access to public records, open meetings, legal notices or other vi­tal sources of information. Bundy said the support helps members to decide when to give testimony or when a lawsuit may be needed to fight for access.

Those advocacy efforts were on display recently when the World-Herald and the Journal Star filed public record requests related to the administration of the death pen­alty in Nebraska. The publications took opposite editorial positions on whether Nebraska should have cap­ital punishment (the World-Herald favors it, the Journal Star opposes it), but they both agreed that records pertaining to it should be public.

“We strongly felt that we need­ed that information and the public needed that information,” Bundy said.

Shawn Renner, an attorney at Cline Williams Wright Johnson & Oldfather who has represented Media of Nebraska as an attorney and lobbyist since 1985, said the Nebraska Press Association and Nebraska Broadcasters Association – both of which he also represents – offer legal advice hotlines as pre-paid legal services.

“Media of Nebraska largely is just an organization that participates in the legislative process,” Renner said. “I’d characterize it as an umbrella group.”

Allen Beermann, executive director of the Nebraska Press Association, said the news media is the only industry pro­tected by the First Amendment, and the various companies in­volved gathering news have an obligation to be a voice for the people.

“That’s an awesome respon­sibility,” Beermann said. 

Jim Timm, president and ex­ecutive director of the Nebraska Broadcasters Association, said Media of Nebraska launched its first public awareness cam­paign last year, helping to edu­cate Nebraskans about the First Amendment freedoms.

Craig Eckert of Platte River Radio in Hastings and Kearney was the originator of the “THINK F1RST” campaign. He said in a statement that polls show that Americans lack even a basic knowledge of the First Amendment, and the campaign aims to help explain the role those freedoms play in an open society.

Timm said the website for the awareness campaign, ThinkFirstAmendment.org, has drawn about a half a million pa­geviews.

“We are just trying to educate,” Timm said. “The people that appear in the campaign are all Nebraskans. That was important to us.”

Renner said he believes an alli­ance of media outlets would have formed without the Stuart litiga­tion, given the political climate of the 1970s, which saw the Freedom of Information Act at the federal level and states adopting various sunshine laws. He said the work the organization does is crucial for the news industry and the public.

“The state’s newspapers and broadcasters are able to provide information that is valuable to the public, at least in part because of the work that Media of Nebraska does,” Renner said. “Even though Media of Nebraska may not be well known and may not have much of a public face, it plays a role and is a benefit to anyone who consumes news in the state of Nebraska.”

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