No king of pop or gag order can keep a talk show host quiet

The newspapers are filled with stories about the war in Iraq, the cease-fire between the Palestinians and Israelis and President Bush’s new Social Security plan. But there is one story that always makes top billing in the news – the Michael Jackson trial.

The King of Pop is on trial for supposedly molesting a 13-year-old boy at his Neverland ranch two years ago. The charges against him include conspiracy to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion, three counts of committing lewd acts on a child and four counts of giving alcohol to children to assist in committing a felony.

According to a report from BBC, Jackson has denied all charges and his lawyer claims the accuser’s mother is simply looking to make some money from the celebrity.

Jackson could face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.

The trial has been through its own ups and downs, including a short postponement of jury selection because of Jackson’s hospitalization for the flu. But now, the trial is well underway and the media is having a field day with it.

All of the facts of the trial have been recounted in multiple articles, published in different magazines and newspapers. Yet, is it sad that I find the celebrity witnesses to be the most intriguing part of the case?

One celebrity who has received a good deal of press for being a witness for the defense is “The Tonight Show” host, Jay Leno. Because of his position as a witness, he is under a gag order, which prevents him from talking about the trial or, more precisely, from telling any jokes about it during his monologues.

According to an article in The New York Times, Leno has instead been handing over the duty of telling Jackson jokes to celebrity guests, such as Brad Garrett and Dennis Miller.

Apparently, Leno was contacted by the accuser, who tried to convince him to donate money to help him pay his hospital bills while he was being treated for cancer. Supposedly, Leno could hear the mother coaching the boy in the background.

In a recent issue of People, Leno is quoted as saying, “They were looking for a mark.”

Leno has also filed a motion asking for a clarification of the gag rule and a possible suspension of it, as it supposedly denies his rights under the First Amendment and California Constitution, according to an article on Yahoo News.

As I watched an episode of “The Tonight Show,” Leno brought out comedian Carrot Top to tell his Jackson jokes. The host stood off to the sidelines, watching and laughing, but clearly, in my opinion anyway, wanting to do the mocking himself.

As an aspiring journalist, I understand the need to have the complete freedom of speech afforded by the First Amendment and the frustration that comes from being told I can’t write or say something.

On the other hand, there is a judicial rule that those involved with a trial cannot talk about it outside of the courtroom. From this viewpoint, it makes sense to deny Leno his few moments of comedy in order to erase the dangers of any bias or information that may come through in his jokes and teasers.

It is a fine line between that freedom of speech and saying something that could sway a jury in a trial. Leno possesses a certain amount of power with “The Tonight Show.” His monologues are popular and people laugh and listen and, although they may not agree with everything he says, they still take it in and absorb the material.

But while Leno cannot make jokes about the trial, other evening talk show hosts are using their First Amendment rights to mock Jackson and even Leno himself. As Conan O’Brien said during his evening monologue, “Jay Leno has been subpoenaed as a witness in the Michael Jackson trial, so Leno may be banned from doing Michael Jackson jokes. As a result, Jay Leno has been put on suicide watch.”

*This article was written prior to Sunday’s announcement that the gag order had been lifted or, as Conan might say, “Leno has been taken off suicide watch.”