A gag order, also known as a “suppression order,” is an order made by a court or government official, restricting information from becoming public knowledge. In most cases, a gag order is issued by a judge for the purpose of preventing witnesses and jurors from obtaining information about the case outside court, to protect the integrity of the trial. On occasion, a judge may issue a gag order to prevent certain information from being passed on to third parties involved in the legal matter. To explore this concept, consider the following gag order definition.
- An order of the court that bans reporters or other parties involved in a case from publicly disclosing certain information.
What is a Gag Order
A gag order is issued by the court to order individuals involved with a civil or criminal court case to refrain from disclosing certain information to the public, or to the press. People who are commonly the targets of gag orders include witnesses, attorneys, law enforcement officials, jurors, and other parties to a legal matter. Gag orders, sometimes referred to as “protective orders,” are a tool commonly used by judges to protect individuals’ right to a fair trial, to protect a company’s trade secrets, or to protect the identity and privacy of minors and victims. Because this type of order restrains people from releasing information, or from discussing the case in any manner, it may be considered a type of restraining order.
In some cases, a judge may issue a gag order prohibiting the media itself from sharing information garnered before the criminal investigation has ended. An individual who violates the terms of a gag order is subject to criminal penalties similar to those imposed for contempt of court. Penalties for violating a gag order often include fines, and may include incarceration.
Issuing a Gag Order
While a judge may issue a gag order in a legal matter of his own accord, any party to a legal action may request the issuance of such a restraining order. Technically, a judge cannot order an individual who is not involved in the case from discussing, or commenting on, it. This includes media reporters. By issuing a gag order, a judge effectively dictates how much the people involved in the trial share with the media, and the public.
Gag Orders and Unruly Defendants
A rarely used policy regarding the handling of unruly defendants in a trial is sometimes referred to as a gag order, as it involves the use of a physical gag to keep the defendant from further disrupting the trial. Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the practice of binding and gagging defendants in the 1970 case Illinois v. Allen, it is rare in modern courts.
Today, the judge often gives such a defendant a warning that, if he continues with the disruptive behavior, he will be removed from the courtroom. If the defendant continues to act in a manner that makes it impossible to continue the trial, he may lose his right to be present during the hearing. In addition to removal from the courtroom, a judge may hold a disruptive defendant, or other disruptive party, in contempt of court.
What a Gag Order Does Not Cover
While a gag order can be issued to participants in a court proceeding, members of the public who attend the proceedings cannot be ordered to not talk about what they observe. In addition, gag orders do not apply to open court proceedings, or to any official court documents that have not been sealed.
Desperate Father Violates Gag in Medical Treatment Case
Doctors at Tufts Medical Center in Massachusetts diagnosed young Justina Pelletier with mitochondrial disease. However, medical professionals at Boston Children’s Hospital did not agree with the diagnosis, believing she suffers from somatoform disorder instead. Justina’s parents disagreed with the doctors in Boston, and tried to have their daughter discharged so they could return her to Tufts Hospital. When the parents arrived at the hospital to discharge Justina, they were charged with medical abuse. The report stated that the parents were seeking medical treatment that the girl did not need. The state took custody of Justina, and a legal battle ensued regarding custody of Justina, as well as her medical treatment.
On November 7, 2013, the court issued a gag order to prevent the Pelletiers from talking about the case to the media. This came about after a media investigation began by WTIC, a Connecticut NewsTalk station. The parents did not agree with the gag order, believing they need to gain support in order to save their daughter’s life.
Lou Pelletier, Justina’s father, spoke with an independent television news network about the controversy surrounding his daughter and her diagnosis. In doing so, Pelletier violated the gag order, and the judge found him to be in contempt of court.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Hearing – A proceeding before the court at which an issue of fact or law is heard, evidence presented, and a decision made.
- Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.