Despite the widespread attention the case has received, the criminal trial of seven Sayreville High School football players accused of sexually assaulting four teammates will be closed to the public, including the news media.
An appellate court on Tuesday upheld a Family Court judge’s November decision to bar reporters from covering the trial citing the ages of the players and potential “community backlash” against them.
The players will be tried as juveniles, not as adults. Juvenile proceedings usually are kept from the public unless a judge decides otherwise.
The decision also prevents news outlets from publishing the defendants’ and victims’ names unless reporters can obtain the names from sources other than confidential court documents.
The trial court judge’s original order had prevented the media from publishing the names altogether — a decision that the companies believed violated the First Amendment.
The hazing case first made national headlines in October and led to the suspension of the high school’s football season. George Najjar, the longtime coach of the high school’s storied football program, was eventually fired and replaced earlier this month. He remains suspended with pay in his capacity as a gym teacher.
The judge’s confidentiality order was appealed by Gannett New Jersey, publisher of the Courier News, Home News Tribune and MyCentralJersey.com; NJ Advance Media, publisher of the Star-Ledger; the Associated Press; and TV broadcasting company ABC.
“This was a matter of significant concern not only with the facts of this case but in the broader implications,” said Thomas Cafferty, the Gibbons P.C. attorney who represented the media companies. “We felt that it would be meaningful if the public could see how the court proceedings would play out.”
Concerning the issue of identifying the teenagers, news outlets usually do not identify underage victims or suspects as a matter of policy. But the media companies argued that it should not be a decision imposed by the court, and the three-judge appellate division panel agreed.
“That was always our argument, that is where the judgment rested — with the news media and editors, not with the courts,” Cafferty said.
The trial judge also said the victims should be entitled to “move forward with their lives” without the “notoriety of this case following them further,” according to the appellate decision.
Richard Klein, an attorney representing one of the students charged in the case, said he was pleased with the appellate decision “because these are juveniles” and that “it would be terrible to start” opening up these types of proceedings to the public.
“The media is there for their own reasons that the defense doesn’t agree with,” he said Tuesday.
The seven players have been accused of hazing and sexually assaulting younger players over a 10-day period last September.
None of the coaches have been criminally charged and the assistant coaches have resumed their duties after a brief suspension.
School Superintendent Rick Labbe last month said the football program would return for the next season.