A gag order or suppression order is a formal directive which forbids people from discussing something publicly. Gag orders are usually used in a legal context when a judge wants to keep a trial as fair as possible by limiting public discussion as the trial occurs, to avoid influencing jurors and witnesses. Private organizations, companies, and institutions can also use gag orders to control the flow of information.
In the case of a gag order which pertains to a legal trial, the order is issued by a judge. The order may ban people involved in a case, such as lawyers, witnesses, and jurors, from discussing the case publicly, and it can also ban media reporting on the case. Gag orders are usually used when a judge is concerned that a case is so sensational that it will be difficult for the defendant to get a fair trial otherwise. Public discussion and opinion can sway the outcome of a legal case if a trial garners a great deal of attention, and this conflicts with judicial values which state that evidence should be considered impartially.
People may chafe against a gag order mandated by a court. If they violate the order, they can be subject to legal penalties such as fines or even imprisonment. Gag orders can also be enforced with techniques such as jury sequestering, in which members of the jury are kept in private and secure locations for the duration of the trial so that they cannot be influenced by people on the outside.
In the case of a gag order issued by a private organization, the organization usually cannot compel the media not to report on something unless it can demonstrate, in court, that the media's reporting is erroneous and harmful. However, it can obligate employees and representatives to obey a gag order as part of the terms of employment, as when people sign nondisclosure agreements before working on the development of secret projects.
Sometimes, people comply with a gag order as a courtesy, not because they are legally obligated to do so. In 2009, for example, the New York Times attracted a great deal of controversy when it revealed that it had colluded with other news media to keep the kidnapping of a journalist secret for seven months. The organization argued that the secrecy was designed to protect the journalist and increase the chances of a positive outcome in negotiations with the kidnappers, but some people cried foul, arguing that concealing such information had potentially dangerous implications.
The gag order is certainly not without controversy. Many people feel that these legal orders are a form of censorship and that they can be used as a tool to prevent members of the public from accessing information which may be important or of interest.