What Is The Legal Definition Of “Gag Order?”

Have you ever watched a TV courtroom drama (and no, Judge Judy does not count — even though we don’t consider it “real,” it’s not a drama either) and wondered what some of the commonly uttered phrases mean? The phrase “gag order” is thrown around all the time. It’s jargon, but rarely explained to the audience. But many people who have served on juries have also heard the phrase.

The legal definition of “gag order” according to Merriam-Webster’s legal dictionary is this: “A judicial ruling barring public disclosure or discussion (as by the press) of information related to a case.”

For example, juries themselves are usually subject to a gag order. Jury selection is a process to determine a group of 12 unbiased individuals who will perform their function in court diligently, respectfully, and professionally — which means they’re also legally required to keep quiet when they go home at night. This is especially important for bigger cases that stretch days and days. 

But there are plenty of other situations in which a person might be constrained by a gag order. One recent article in the Washington Examiner shed light on many journalists’ request of Joe Biden that he lift a gag order put on federal employees by the Trump administration.

President Matthew Hall of the Society of Professional Journalists said, “These rules, exacerbated under the Trump administration, amount to extreme censorship and damage everyone’s understanding of government. They literally threaten people’s lives.”

The purpose of a gag order is to ensure a fair trial for all parties, and they are only applied in cases where a threat to this end might exist should the public receive information about the trial. In addition to juries, a gag order is most often placed upon reporters, lawyers, witnesses, and other parties who are present in court during a case hearing.