Secrecy rarely serves public interest

Free access to public information is our franchise.

By “our” we don’t mean news organizations. We mean Americans. The issue isn’t media interest; the issue is public interest.

A long-awaited break in the 2005 disappearance of high school teacher Tara Grinstead brings with it tragic news everybody feared and nobody wanted to hear: The popular 30-year-old former beauty queen has been murdered, according to authorities who last month charged a former student at Irwin County High School, where Grinstead taught, with her slaying. Police have not said whether the suspect, Ryan Alexander Duke, was ever one of Grinstead’s pupils.

As the case awaits trial, Superior Court Judge Melanie B. Cross of the Tifton Judicial Circuit has placed a gag order on both the prosecution and the defense, as well as law enforcement (as if investigators would likely be loose-lipped in such a case) and even family members of the victim and the suspect.

In response, the Georgia Press Association has filed a motion on behalf of the Macon Telegraph, the Valdosta Daily News, the Tifton Gazette and the Moultrie observer asking that the ban be lifted. According to a story this week in the Telegraph, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta TV stations WSB and WXIA, and WMAZ in Macon have joined in a similar motion.

The ban certainly isn’t in the interest of privacy for the victim’s family. Her cousin Lee Bennett, an Atlanta lawyer, is reportedly planning to file another challenge to the order on behalf of Grinstead’s sister, Anita Gattis: “She feels she should have her First Amendment right of free speech and be able to express her viewpoint and make statements about it,” Bennett told the Telegraph.

David Hudson, attorney for the Georgia Press Association, noted that most pretrial gag orders are ultimately overturned, and that there are “many mechanisms available for a judge to ensure a fair trial without curbing information available to the public.”

There’s no denying this is a compelling, if grisly and tragic, story. More to the point, it’s one the public has a right to hear.

Welcome, guests

Lots of new friends are arriving here for some major sports, civic, entertainment and faith-based events that have more than 6,000 people trekking to Columbus. (And yes, that’s a wretchedly bad joke.)

As reported earlier by business writer Tony Adams, the Archery Shooters Association is holding an ASA Pro/Am Tour event at Fort Benning; the National Fastpitch Coaches Association is holding a 22-team small college tournament at the South Commons softball complex; the CSU women’s basketball team is hosting the NCAA Division II regional; Western Georgia Ministries of the Church of God in Christ and a Georgia public safety communications conference are just a couple of the other groups visiting here.

And, of course, there’s the annual summit of Starfleet International, the Star Trek fan club meeting here through Sunday; a hearty welcome to them as well. They’re no doubt quite used to bad jokes by now.