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Gag order denied in school lawsuit

A judge has denied the request for a gag order filed by lawyers representing the contractor and architect for Moton and Deltona elementary schools.

The Hernando County School Board sued the two parties last year, claiming that the cracks and settling in the schools were unacceptable. The request for a gag order, filed about a month ago, claimed that the School Board's lawyer in the matter, Chris Weiss, was trying to use news coverage to influence the case.

The ruling, was made this week by Circuit Judge Richard Tombrink Jr.

Joe Mason, the lawyer representing the contractor and the architect, said that Tombrink told the court he would consider the matter again if it became more relevant.

And, Mason said, maybe just bringing up the issue would discourage excessive public discussion of the case.

"Hopefully, the fact that issues have been called to everyone's attention will obviate the need to bring this up again," Mason said.

Weiss, meanwhile, said the request was an outrageous attempt to breach Florida's Sunshine Law.

"I knew just as sure as God made green apples that the judge was not going to issue that gag order," Weiss said.

The School Board is seeking compensation for the cracks and settling at the two schools. The suit claims that the problems are the fault of the contractor, Batson-Cook Associates of Tampa, and the architect, Goldman and Associates of Brooksville.

The request filed by Mason referred to two stories, one in the Times and another in the Tampa Tribune. It claimed that the comments by Weiss and the School Board are "exemplars of such efforts to gain public sympathy."

It asked Tombrink to grant a general order covering "all parties to this action," prohibiting them from making any public comment outside court.

Weiss said both the stories were accounts from regular School Board meetings. Gagging participants not only would limit public access to the civil case, but also would stifle the public's right to know about the School Board's decisions, Weiss said.

One of the stories, he said, reported on his request for more money from the School Board to hire an expert witness. A gag on that would mean that the School Board would be spending public money without the public's knowledge, Weiss said.

Mason said his request for a gag order was not just in response to the newspaper articles. Comparing it to a flu shot, he said the order was meant to anticipate future problems caused by excessive publicity.

"The issue wasn't whether there had been a lot of publicity now. The issue was whether there would be publicity in the future," Mason said.

He also said that with three newspapers competing in Hernando County, there is a great potential for excessive coverage.

"I've always contended that this is an overreported community," he said.