GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — Limiting Johnson City officials’ speech on the sexual assault-based ‘Jane Doe’ federal lawsuit would violate their First Amendment rights and isn’t needed to guarantee a fair trial, lawyers for the city argued in a filing Wednesday.
“The plaintiffs are attempting to impede the City’s First Amendment rights under the guise of a gag order,” the attorneys wrote.
“The majority of pretrial publicity in this case was created by the Plaintiffs based on the interview given by their attorneys and the pleadings they have submitted. To extent there is a ‘clear and present danger’ of a fair trial, the Defendants are not to blame.”
The filing is a response to a Sept. 1 motion by attorneys for the nine alleged victims of former downtown resident Sean Williams asking a federal judge to prevent city officials from making “extrajudicial conduct” in the form of statements about the case and the alleged victims.
That motion came after an Aug. 25 news conference in which City Manager Cathy Ball announced the city had filed an answer to the lawsuit and explained some of the defenses that would be used by the city’s attorneys.
Those include “comparative fault,” a strategy in civil law that allows a reduction in damages (or complete dismissal) if actions taken by plaintiffs are deemed to place a degree of responsibility on them.
The lawsuit, filed in late June and amended twice in late August/early September, claims the Johnson City Police Department (JCPD) was to some degree complicit by enabling Williams to allegedly commit multiple rapes over a years-long period. Several of the plaintiffs filed police reports saying they were sexually assaulted by Williams, while a number of others did not.
The City has denied all allegations made in the lawsuit.
Since the suit was filed, Williams has been indicted on state child rape and federal child pornography production charges. News Channel 11 has also reported on a search warrant for alleged photo and video evidence that Williams allegedly possessed when he was arrested April 29 in North Carolina. It purportedly includes more than 50 folders with files showing Williams raping or sexually assaulting drugged women in his downtown Johnson City apartment.
The plaintiff’s motion to enjoin the city from further comment claimed that Ball’s remarks at the news conference intimidated victims and may have had a chilling effect on the possibility of other women coming forward.
The city’s response calls that notion inaccurate. It also cites what it says has been a flood of media coverage that has placed the city and the JCPD in a negative, biased light — and that the Jane Doe attorneys have essentially been feeding the media information about the case.
It references an interview attorney Vanessa Baehr-Jones conducted with News Channel 11 hours before the lawsuit was filed in which she explained the plaintiffs’ claims and reasons for filing.
The city response cites several stories about motions and the amended complaint and claims the plaintiffs’ attorneys have prefaced some of their filings with non-numbered introductions. One, the attorneys claim, “reads more like a newspaper article (or diatribe) than a ‘short, plain statement of the claim,’ as required by (federal rules of procedure).”
After the second amended complaint was filed in early September, the response reads, the local media learned of it “as expected.”
It claims News Channel 11 “generated news, helped with yet another multi-page introductory paragraph precluding any need to read the new proposed Second Amended Complaint. A copy of this made-to-order news article is attached hereto as Exhibit 5.”
That article actually cites multiple paragraphs, statements and information from deep within the alleged complaint, which was read in its entirety, and actually takes very little of its content about a new “Jane Doe” alleged victim from the referenced “introductory paragraph.”
The city’s arguments suggest that coverage is much more likely to have a detrimental impact on justice than any comments by the city:
“The vast majority of the publicity generated about this case can be traced to Plaintiffs’ repetitive filings and the media interview given by counsel for the Plaintiffs,” the response reads.
“Consistent with her obligations and duties as a public official for the City of Johnson City, City Manager Ball has attempted to respond very appropriately to the allegations made against the City.
“Silencing the City Manager and other representatives of Johnson City will not stop the press from publishing articles about this case; however, it will improperly prevent Johnson City in its legitimate efforts to communicate credible, accurate, factual information related to matters of public interest and concern with the citizens they have a duty to serve.”
It is unknown when the judge in the case will rule on the plaintiffs’ motion.