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Evers defends government’s response to child abuse report

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers is defending his administration’s decision to threaten prosecution to block a journalist from publishing information from a confidential child-abuse investigation.

A former emergency-room doctor at Children’s Hospital Wisconsin is faced with charges of physically abusing a newborn he was adopting with his wife. The doctor, John M. Cox, denies he did anything wrong and wants the case dismissed. The case is receiving tremendous scrutiny by the medical industry in the county, as physicians disagree with each other over what exactly caused the girl’s injuries.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on Tuesday that Wisconsin Department of Children and Families officials warned an NBC News reporter last month that his planned publication of a story that included information from the investigation file would violate state laws governing the protection of minors and could result in six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Evers told reporters on Tuesday that it was appropriate for the agency to protect the child.

“Somebody has got to stick up for that young kid who was deemed to be abused,” Evers said. “I get it that if some reporter gets some information that, frankly, they shouldn’t have gotten, they’re gonna report it. I get that. But it’s I think it’s very important that somebody sticks up for that kid and that’s us.”

In the warning to NBC News over the release of the case’s investigation file, the department cited a state law saying a person who receives such information may not “further disclose it.” The department did not allege NBC News directly participated in the illegal release and the department spokesman Tom McCarthy said it did not intend to threaten prosecution with the letter.

An attorney for NBC News wrote back to the department, saying virtually all the information contained in the investigation file can be obtained from other sources, including court records — which are public records — and cited two U.S. Supreme Court decisions from 1975 and 2001 that said the First Amendment protects the publication of information required to be confidential by state law, even if the information’s release to a journalist is illegal.

A court hearing is scheduled for Feb. 12 on Cox’s arguments for why his case should be dropped.

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