Judge denies restraining order that would block WBTV story from airing

Updated: Feb. 26, 2020 at 6:59 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A Mecklenburg County judge took WBTV to court, trying to get a temporary restraining order to stop WBTV from broadcasting and publishing a story that she believed would be defamatory and inaccurate. The story deals with how Judge Aretha Blake handles family law cases.

Blake and her attorney were seeking what they called a “narrowly tailored injunction” to stop WBTV from broadcasting a story about Judge Blake’s handling of family law cases.

The unpublished story, produced by WBTV reporter Nick Ochsner, was a follow-up to previous WBTV reporting that called into question the number of matters in Judge Blake’s cases that hadn’t been ruled on in months, or in some cases, a year or more.

Set to air on Thursday, just days before a primary election, Blake’s team said the story was an attack on a free and fair election and filled with incomplete and false information.

“This is specifically what we believe is an attack on a free election," Blake’s attorney said. "Certainly, we do believe in the First Amendment, but we also have to fight for individuals to make rational decisions based on the truth.”

Lawyers for WBTV countered that there is little legal precedent for stopping a news story before it is broadcast or published, and that cases where there has been such prior restraint held little in common with the case presented here.

“Free speech cases, especially cases that involve speech, involving, even critical of elected public officials involve the highest protection that the First Amendment does provide, this is the core of our democracy is elected officials," a WBTV attorney said.

In closing, Judge Martin Keuhnert said the case presented competing issues in the Constitution, saying that while freedom of the press is paramount…“…on the other hand, if somebody is abusing, clearly in the wrong and been found by court to be in the wrong and they keep doing it over and over again, freedom of the press can be, I assume, can be restrained under very rare circumstances and a very narrow tailored way.”

In concluding the hearing the judge said to issue a temporary restraining order he would need to see clear and convincing evidence that the facts of the story were inaccurate and that the story was defamatory against Judge Blake, and he said in this case, it just wasn’t there.

The judge did encourage Judge Blake and WBTV and reporter Nick Ochsner to communicate with each other and he urged caution to WBTV in reporting the story.

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