Trials & Litigation

Wrongly released documents on student's drowning must not be published, judge rules

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In an unusual move against the media, a Cook County judge ordered the Better Government Association not to publish records related to the drowning death of a student with autism that Chicago Public Schools lawyers say were released by mistake.

On Wednesday, Circuit Court Judge Peter Flynn denied the BGA’s emergency motion to vacate his order and said he needed until at least Feb. 20 to review the records and determine which portions should be released to the public, report the BGA and the Chicago Sun-Times.

Rosario Israel Gomez was 14 when he drowned in the pool at Kennedy High School on the Southwest Side of Chicago in 2017. An investigation into his death by the Chicago Sun-Times and the BGA raised questions about why a student with special needs was allowed into a crowded pool when he couldn’t swim and wasn’t wearing a life vest, the BGA said.

In response to a lawsuit, a CPS lawyer gave hundreds of pages of investigative files and internal records detailing the drowning to the BGA in January, the BGA said. But days later, school district lawyers said the release of records was a mistake and asked for their return.

The CPS asked Flynn in court Monday to “claw back” the records. He not only agreed but also dismissed BGA attorney Matt Topic’s argument that the order was “an illegal ‘prior restraint’ on the rights of a free press,” the BGA reported.

Flynn told Topic, according to the BGA: “There is no emergency here in any meaningful way. … I don’t think it’s a prior restraint. I think it’s efficient management of a case. I am not going to declare World War III in the context of this report.”

To which, the BGA said, Topic responded: “The fact is, your honor, to the press, any prior restraint is a declaration of World War III. You have the press, which has a highly relevant important document that they obtained through nothing illegal, and you are restraining them from publishing that document.”

Prior restraint of the press is prohibited except in extreme circumstances, such as real threats to national security, under established U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

The BGA plans to appeal Flynn’s decision.

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