By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director
The Denver Post is urging a Boulder County juvenile court judge to let the public and news media attend a March 31 preliminary hearing for a former Fairview High School quarterback who is charged with sexually assaulting another student.
Judge Ingrid Bakke said earlier this month she was inclined to the close the courtroom for Aidan Atkinson’s hearing in part because of media interest in his case and because she thought it would be best for Atkinson and the community.
The Post filed an objection Friday along with the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and the Colorado Press Association.
“This criminal proceeding involves a star high school quarterback who was allowed to play an entire football season while a criminal sexual assault investigation was pending,” said Noelle Phillips, The Post’s breaking news editor. “These allegations have affected an entire school community, and students have told a Denver Post reporter that the situation shouldn’t be kept a secret.
“This case goes beyond the allegations against the former quarterback to include the accountability of the Fairview High School principal, football coach, athletic director and other adults in charge who knew that he had been accused of a sexual assault yet allowed him to play for the school until he was arrested in November,” Phillips told CFOIC. “The school system has denied our attempts at holding people accountable at every turn, citing student privacy. By keeping this hearing open, the public likely can gain insight into what the school’s leaders knew, when they knew it, and how they handled the situation.”
Atkinson, who faces multiple felony and misdemeanor charges, is accused of sexually assaulting a female student during homecoming in 2018. The objection, written by media attorney and CFOIC president Steve Zansberg, notes that some details of the allegations against him have already been made public in an arrest warrant filed against a Boulder social worker who is accused of failing to report child abuse in connection with the Atkinson case.
More details about the allegations against Atkinson likely will emerge during the preliminary hearing.
The news media and public have a presumptive right of access to the proceeding under the U.S. and Colorado constitutions, Zansberg’s brief argues. “The press has a strong and legitimate interest in covering the … proceeding for the benefit of readers, viewers and listeners,” he wrote. The Colorado children’s code, he added, establishes a presumption that the public has a right to attend juvenile court proceedings “unless the court determines that it is in the best interest of the child or of the community.”
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 recognized the public’s First Amendment right to attend criminal trials in Richmond Newspapers Inc. v. Virginia. Other rulings, including a 1979 Colorado Supreme Court decision, specifically concern the public’s right of access to preliminary hearings.
Because the allegations against Atkinson, 18, have already been disclosed in a court record, “which has itself been the subject of widespread press coverage, the claimed need to shield the Defendant (or the community) from exposure to those allegations cannot outweigh the public’s interest in monitoring the proceedings and work of this Court,” Zansberg’s brief says.
“The entire country is dealing with a reckoning in sexual assault cases, which have for too long been stifled and swept under the rug,” Phillips said. “To ensure a fair trial, the press must be given an opportunity to witness these proceedings and to report them to the public.”
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