Featured photo: The Guilford County courthouse (file photo)

This story was first published by the Assembly. Story by Michael Hewlett and Jefferey Billman.

Two weeks before police officers raided a small-town newspaper in Kansas and kickstarted a national conversation about freedom of the press, a district court judge in Guilford County seized a Greensboro News & Record journalist’s notes and forbade her from publishing what she’d observed. 

Reporter Kenwyn Caranna spent July 28 in Judge Ashley Watlington-Simms’ courtroom for a story she was working on involving juvenile court. The judge didn’t notice her until late in the afternoon, but after Caranna identified herself, Watlington-Simms ordered bailiffs to take the reporter’s notes and seal them. Watlington-Simms then issued a gag order. 

Experts say Watlington-Simms’ actions violated the U.S. Supreme Court’s prohibition on prior restraint, or the suppression of information a news organization has obtained. The court considers it “the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.” 

Watlington-Simms also appears to have run afoul of two state laws. One bars judges from “banning, prohibiting, or restricting the publication or broadcast of any report concerning … any evidence, testimony, argument, ruling, verdict, decision, judgment, or other matter occurring in open court in any hearing, trial, or other proceeding.” The other shields journalists from having to disclose “any confidential or non-confidential information, document, or item obtained or prepared while acting as a journalist,” including their notes. 

But it’s unclear what, if any, steps the paper has taken to fight back; the paper’s executive editor is not commenting, and the paper had only run two articles about the incident more than a month ago. The paper had initially said it would ask the judge to vacate the order. 

On Friday, the paper ran Caranna’s article about complaints that the Guilford County Department of Social Services mishandles abuse and neglect cases and that an overwhelmed juvenile court system leaves children in foster care for years. The paper also ran a short story about what happened to Caranna and published the protective order, which court officials had previously told The Assembly was not a public record.

The story provided no updates on the News & Record’s efforts to appeal the order. 

Like many newsrooms across the country, the News & Record is a shell of its former self. There are currently only five reporters covering a city of 300,000, down from 100 newsroom staffers two decades ago. Its corporate owner, Lee Enterprises, has not yet signaled any willingness to engage in what could be a costly legal battle. 

Jen Nelson, a senior staff attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, worries about what could happen if the protective order is allowed to stand. 

“I think it emboldens either this judge to continue operating the courtroom in this manner or other judges to do the same,” she said. “And it’s perhaps a chilling effect on journalists from covering open proceedings, fearing that at the end of the day, a judge could just decide that they don’t want the hearings of the day covered and seize the notes with impunity.”

Caranna had worked for the paper for a total of 22 years, and spent another four years with the Winston-Salem Journal, which Lee Enterprises also owns. 

Though she had recently given her notice to resign, she was on assignment in Watlington-Simms’ courtroom on July 28. No one stopped her from entering. And according to an August 5 News & Record story, Caranna left when Watlington-Simms told everyone not involved in a specific case to exit. (In juvenile abuse, neglect, and dependency court, a judge can ask people to leave based on considerations like the allegations, the child’s age and maturity, and whether the confidentiality of a juvenile’s record will be compromised.)

Caranna returned when Watlington-Simms re-opened the courtroom. 

When Watlington-Simms asked Caranna to identify herself, she disclosed that she is a reporter and said she was observing how the court operated and not covering a particular case. The judge then indicated she was going to consult with the chief district judge, Teresa Vincent, but denied Caranna’s request to consult with an attorney. When Watlington-Simms returned from consulting with Vincent, she ordered Caranna not to talk about what she saw in court that day and instructed bailiffs to take Caranna’s notes out of her notebook and then seal them. 

Five days later, on August 2, Watlington-Simms issued a protective order. The paper said then that it would appeal. 

State law seems to be on the News & Record’s side. North Carolina’s juvenile courtrooms, like most courts, are open to the public unless a judge closes them. Though the law keeps juvenile court records confidential, experts say the public still has a right to know how judges conduct themselves. 

The protective order’s rationale is murky. Watlington-Simms justified seizing the reporter’s notes as necessary to protect children’s privacy but used a law that has nothing to do with juvenile court proceedings. That law outlines how social-services directors handle reports of abuse and neglect and how social-services directors and judges ensure that those records are kept confidential. 

She said Caranna missed a docket call where “all interested parties and any guests of those parties are notated for the court record” and anyone not involved is told to either leave or “at the bare minimum are not allowed to record or take notes.” 

“The Court finds that Kenwyn Caranna did not inform the Court or the interested parties that a reporter for the News and Record was present and was taking notes regarding multiple abuse, neglect and dependency proceedings,” Watlington-Simms wrote in the order. 

Journalists are not required to identify themselves to enter a courtroom that is open to the public. 

Watlington-Simms contended that Caranna’s notes might contain “federally protected information” such as the names of children who testify, parents involved in the proceedings, employees with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and Guardian Ad Litem volunteers. She doesn’t say how that information is federally protected. And the names of Health and Human Services employees and Guardian Ad Litem volunteers are not confidential. 

Watlington-Simms also argued that the U.S. Supreme Court “has repeatedly recognized that juvenile court proceedings … have historically been closed to the public.” That not only contradicts state law, but one of the cases she cited doesn’t back up her point: In Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing, the court struck down a West Virginia law that made it a crime for a newspaper to publish a juvenile offender’s name without a court order. 

Another case she cited, Davis v. Alaska, has nothing to do with the issue at hand; the 1974 decision held that a defendant had a right to cross-examine a juvenile offender at trial. 

A former prosecutor, Watlington-Simms was appointed to the bench by Gov. Roy Cooper in September 2020 and elected to a full term that November. She declined to comment on the specifics of the cases she was hearing that day in July. 

But in a series of emails to The Assembly, the judge again said her primary concern was protecting children’s privacy. She noted that she hears information in abuse, neglect, and dependency proceedings that would normally not be public record, including psychological evaluations and medical records. She might also hear testimony from children. 

“Those children deserve the utmost privacy because they did nothing to be under the court’s purview,” she wrote. “They deserve so much more than to be subject to a news headline that could cause them irreparable harm.” 

Judge Ashley Watlington-Simms. (Photo from her public Facebook page)

Yet, just as in the protective order, her reasoning mangled case law and the rules for North Carolina courtrooms. 

For example, Watlington-Simms cited Rule 15 of the General Rules of Practice for Superior and District Court, saying it imposes “certain restrictions on the media as it relates to children in juvenile proceedings.” Rule 15, she pointed out, “expressly prohibited” coverage of adoption and juvenile proceedings. 

But Rule 15 governs “electronic media and still photography” of judicial proceedings, not print reporters like Caranna. The rule is explicit: “The terms ‘electronic media coverage’ and ‘electronic coverage’ are used in the generic sense to include coverage by television, motion picture and still photography cameras, broadcast microphones and recorders.” 

Rule 15 also prohibits photography or video of hearings on motions to suppress evidence and jury selection—two things print journalists cover all the time. In addition, the Guilford County Courthouse doesn’t allow cell phones or other electronic devices. 

When asked how Rule 15 applied to Caranna, Watlington-Simms said, “Even in public proceedings, there are still limitations to reporters, methods of reporting and specific disclosures as outlined in the general rules of practice for superior and district court and precedent of previous court cases that I cited in my previous response.”

Specifically, she pointed to Oklahoma Publishing Co. v. District Court, a 1977 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a state court decision barring journalists from “publishing, broadcasting, or disseminating, in any manner, the name or picture of (a) minor child” involved in a closed juvenile murder proceeding. She suggested that Oklahoma Publishing Co. requires journalists to announce their presence and give “all parties an opportunity to be heard” before their notes are deemed “lawfully obtained.”

Oklahoma Publishing Co. said no such thing, however. It merely noted that, though Oklahoma closed juvenile hearings by default—in North Carolina, juvenile hearings are open by default—the judge and attorneys knew reporters were in the courtroom and did not object. 

In fact, Oklahoma Publishing Co. directly contradicted Watlington-Simms. The decision cited a Supreme Court opinion from the previous year that said trial courts could close some proceedings to the public, but judges could not “suppress publication of information from the hearing if the public was allowed to attend.” 

That’s exactly what Watlington-Simms did, said Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute. If judges fail to close their courtrooms before discussing confidential information, “that’s on them,” McBride said.

Watlington-Simms did not respond to additional questions. The district court manager said Wednesday that Chief Judge Vincent, whom Watlington-Simms said she consulted before issuing the gag order, was out of the office and unavailable for comment. 

Notably, state law says that an illegally issued gag order “shall be null and void and of no effect, and no person shall be punished for contempt for the violation of any such void rule or order.” 

In other words, though the News & Record has so far complied with Watlington-Simms’ order, it might not have to. 

More than a month has passed since Watlington-Simms seized Caranna’s notes, but the News & Record has publicly said little about the case. 

Dimon Kendrick-Holmes, the paper’s executive editor, first wrote about the incident nearly two weeks after it happened. Five days later, a reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal—also owned by Lee Enterprises—followed up with an article about the News & Record’s desire to obtain a transcript of the July 28 hearing. That article did not say whether the News & Record had requested a hearing to ask Watlington-Simms to reconsider. 

The News & Record had not run another article or an editorial about the seizure of its reporter’s notes until Friday. 

Kendrick-Holmes said last week that he could not comment. Caranna declined to be interviewed as well. Neither Lee Enterprises regional news director Paige Mudd nor newspaper attorney Mike Tadych responded to requests for comment. (Tadych also represents The Assembly, among other North Carolina media outlets.)

The district court manager would not say whether the paper has requested a hearing to plead its case. 

The paper’s silence raises questions about how much its parent company, Lee Enterprises, is willing to fight in court over the protective order. In 2020, Lee Enterprises bought the News & Record and 29 other daily newspapers from BH Media Group. Since then, the company successfully warded off a takeover attempt by Alden Global Capital, an investment firm seen as a death knell for newspapers. But Lee Enterprises has conducted its share of layoffs and earlier this year implemented furloughs

News budgets are tight, and ultimately, Lee Enterprises, not local editors, will decide how far to take the legal battle in Greensboro. 

Nelson, with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said she has seen other instances around the country where a judge has tried to restrict a media outlet from publishing information. 

In 2022, the Committee reported five different prior restraint incidents, including one in which a town sought to hold a reporter in contempt of court. None occurred in North Carolina. This year, however, two Asheville reporters were convicted of trespassing after they covered police clearing a park of unhoused people. 

McBride, with the Poynter Institute, said the Greensboro incident is vitally important: “I hope that they’re fighting it.”

Disclosure: Assembly reporter Michael Hewlett has worked with both Kenwyn Caranna and Dimon Kendrick-Holmes at the Winston-Salem Journal and briefly worked at the Greensboro News & Record in the late 1990s.

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