UCI Law Clinic Students Win First Amendment Motion


Left to right: Shanxi Feng, Emily Asgari, Cassie Doutt, T.J. Esposito, and Prof. Susan Seager

UCI Law Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology (IPAT) clinic students won a First Amendment motion in Kern County Superior Court, persuading the judge during oral argument to declare that a gag order did not bar a Bakersfield journalist from reporting about a high-profile criminal trial.

IPAT’s client, Anthony “T.J.” Esposito, manages two independent news websites, “The Valley Voice” and “Kern Cast.” After he wrote several stories criticizing local prosecutors for their decision to file criminal public corruption charges against Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, Esposito received a letter from prosecutors telling him to stop making any more public statements about the case.  The prosecutors told Esposito he was a potential witness and the court had ordered all witnesses to keep mum about the case.

But as the IPAT students successfully pointed out to the judge, the prosecutors were wrong and later admitted that Esposito was never a witness.

Second-year law student Cassie Doutt argued during a court hearing that the court’s gag order and prosecutors had imposed an unconstitutional prior restraint on Esposito’s First Amendment right to report about the case for six months.  The court agreed that the gag order did not apply to Mr. Esposito, but did not reach the issue of whether the order was an unconstitutional prior restraint.

“We are happy with the relief given today because it allows him [the reporter] to continue with his job and duty to inform the people,” Doutt said to KGET.com.

“It’s a real shame that it happened, but I’m grateful that a judge found in our favor, and I’m very grateful that a team from UC Irvine represented me pro bono to clear this up and to fight for all of our First Amendment rights,” Esposito told KGET.com. 

UCI Law IPAT Clinical professors and law students representing T.J. Esposito include: Prof. Susan Seager, Prof. Jack Lerner, Cassie Doutt (2L), Shanxi Feng (2L), and Emily Asgari (3L).

“Cassie, Shanxi, and Emily did a fantastic job researching the law, drafting the brief, and mooting for oral argument,” Seager said.  “Cassie showed no nervousness and did not back down when the judge suggested Esposito didn’t need the court’s help.  The court’s ruling that the gag order does not apply to Mr. Esposito is a big victory for independent journalism.” 

This case is part of the IPAT Clinic’s new First Amendment practice, where students are representing journalists and media organizations on matters involving access, transparency, freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Related News Coverage

KGET.com (See UCI Law student Cassie Doutt interviewed on camera)