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Miss. Supreme Court Backs Reporter

December 17, 1998

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) _ The state Supreme Court on Thursday threw out the conviction of a journalist who reported information that was discussed in open court, citing constitutional rights in pursuing news.

Cynthia Jeffries, a reporter for the (Greenville) Delta Democrat Times, had been sentenced to 72 hours in jail for criminal contempt.

She was sentenced after reporting a prosecutor’s comments in court about the juvenile record of a 21-year-old defendant being sentenced in the death of his stepfather.

Washington County Circuit Judge Shirley Byers ordered Jeffries to withhold the information even though it was discussed in open court.

``Obedience to the lower court order would have damaged Jeffries’s right to freedom of speech,″ wrote Justice Mike Mills in the unanimous decision.

He said the information was not secret because people in the courtroom heard it and ``there was no duty on their part to keep the matter private.″

``Once she (the judge) made the matter public, those in attendance, including the press, had a right to further disseminate the information,″ Mills wrote.

Mills quoted the state’s 1890 Constitution, which says, ``the freedom of speech and of the press shall be held sacred.″

The Society of Professional Journalists was one of a half dozen news organizations involved in defending Jeffries.

The ruling comes just days after the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance recommended that Byers be ousted for the Jeffries arrest and other matters.

The Supreme Court will rule later on the judge’s future. Regardless of that decision, Byers leaves office in January after losing her reelection bid last month.

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