A reporter is facing the threat of jail time after allegedly violating a judge's order not to take video of "The Bachelor" star Chris Soules appearing in court in his hit-and-run case.
Prosecutors are pursuing contempt of court proceedings against KWWL's Elizabeth Amanieh, a reporter for the NBC affiliate in Waterloo, in what could be the first case of its kind against an Iowa journalist in decades. If convicted, she could be punished with a $500 fine and up to 180 days in jail.
Amanieh, 22, obtained exclusive video of Soules' April 25 initial appearance after he was jailed for his role in the accident that killed 66-year-old Kenneth Mosher. Police say Soules rear-ended Mosher's tractor and left the scene after calling 911. Soules has pleaded not guilty to the felony, which has prompted intense public interest given his status as a local celebrity.
Iowa court rules allow journalists to record video, audio and photographs of hearings as long as they have prior approval. Prosecutors contend that Judge Linda Fangman told Amanieh she would not allow the station's video cameras to record the hearing and that only photos would be permitted. They say Amanieh violated that order by using her cellphone to record the six-minute appearance, which was later posted to KWWL.com and widely viewed.
Prosecutors filed the contempt action May 1, after Soules' lawyers blasted the pervasive media coverage of the case. Amanieh pleaded not guilty last week.
Gregg Leslie, legal defense director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called the case rare and concerning. He said it shows how bans on recordings of court proceedings can be arbitrary, and he questioned why the judge allowed photos but not cellphone video. He said litigants have been held in contempt for using phones to record but "you don't hear about it happening to reporters."
While journalists should follow court orders, "this doesn't seem like it's a big enough problem to warrant a contempt charge," Leslie said.
Hours after the hearing, the district's chief judge, Kellyann Lekar, signed an order retroactively approving expanded media coverage for the hearing. That order was requested by the media coordinator at KWWL's urging, amid confusion about Fangman's order. KWWL then aired and posted the video, which shows Soules in jail clothes as a prosecutor alleges he hid in his home for hours after the accident.
Lekar later ordered Amanieh to appear at a May 12 hearing on whether should be punished, but that was delayed at her attorney's request and hasn't been reset.
KWWL news director Shane Moreland declined comment on what he called a "personnel matter" involving Amanieh, who remains with the station. The Chicago native and University of Illinois graduate has been at KWWL for one year.
Observers believe it may be the first contempt case against Iowa media since 1983, when Des Moines Register journalists were cited for violating an order not to publish a juvenile's name. That citation was dismissed when a judge ruled that it was an unconstitutional prior restraint.