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Court: Gag Order Was Inappropriate

August 18, 1998

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) _ A judge’s order forbidding six parents to talk publicly about the killing of their children in a West Paducah high school was unjustified, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled.

The three-judge panel ruled Monday that before taking the extreme step of a gag order, the trial judge was obligated to explore other ways to ensure a fair trial for 15-year-old Michael Carneal, the alleged gunman.

``Prior restraint on speech is presumptively unconstitutional,″ said the appellate opinion by Judge Joseph Huddleston.

The shootings at Heath High School made national headlines, but pervasive, adverse publicity does not inevitably lead to an unfair trial, Huddleston wrote.

The ruling blocked enforcement of a gag order McCracken Circuit Judge Jeffrey Hines issued without a hearing on June 24. The day before, the parents of Nicole Hadley, Kayce Steger and Jessica James, along with attorney Michael Breen, publicized a psychiatric report on Carneal.

The families did not like the way Commonwealth’s Attorney Tim Kaltenbach was handling the case and were reacting to reports of a possible plea bargain.

The three girls were killed and five other students were wounded at the school on Dec. 1. Shots were aimed at a student-led prayer meeting in the high school lobby.

Hines’ gag order forbade the families or Breen to publicly say anything about the shootings _ even that they occurred. The families and Breen contested the order.

The appeals court said that was unreasonable.

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