When do newspapers print juvenile names?

Published 8:11 am Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Can a newspaper print the name of a juvenile who faces charges?

Of course it can, but that doesn’t mean it will.

Many people have misconceptions about what a newspaper can and cannot print. State law doesn’t forbid newspapers from printing the name of juveniles going through the justice system. If the state did pass such a law, it would be a violation of the First Amendment.

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“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

That means Congress and by extension state legislatures and other governmental bodies cannot pass laws or make rules that control media content.

So when people ask, “Don’t you have to get permission?” the answer is, “No.” But in many matters of journalism just because newspapers can do something doesn’t mean they will do it. Newspapers display restraint and ethics more than many people imagine.

So what’s the deal on juvenile cases? Why are they generally not printed?

Minnesota is set up so the juvenile courts pretty much keep their cases confidential. There are some exceptions for 16- and 17-year-olds where cases get moved to adult court, which is open.

In other words, the press has the same lack of access to the juvenile court files as anyone else does, just like the press has the same easy access as anyone else does to adult court files. As a newspaper, we generally won’t go to juvenile court to ask for the files of cases because we know the answer will be no.

However, there are times when a newspaper will investigate and through other means discover the names of juveniles facing charges and print them — usually in high-profile cases.

The Albert Lea Tribune did just that in December, when it printed the names of two of the four juveniles facing failure-to-report charges in the high-profile case that alleges elder abuse at a local nursing home.

So where’s that ethical line drawn?

Most newspapers, including the Albert Lea Tribune, choose to not print the names of most juveniles facing charges. Why? It boils down to because the editors feel most readers prefer that.

But most newspapers, including the Albert Lea Tribune, will make exceptions. Why? What the law attempts and what community standards are don’t always jibe. Newspaper editors often feel readers desire to read the names of juveniles printed if the case seems adult enough.

So this is an example:

If a 15-year-old boy reportedly takes an ax to his parents, you can bet that most newspapers will print the teenager’s name.

There is a public safety factor to consider, too. People want to know from whom to keep their children away. There are ways of finding out the name without getting it from the authorities.

Editors also want to print the names in high-profile cases to limit rumors. People chatter to other people on the streets and online often with the names of the wrong people, and that’s not good. Printing the names helps the community know who really is charged. It ends rumors.

These all are reasons why the Tribune printed those two names and hopes to acquire and print the names of all four who face juvenile charges in the case of alleged elder abuse. The allegations are adult in nature; the case is clearly high-profile; there are falsehoods that need to be limited; and on top of everything the juvenile defendants are no longer younger than 18. One already has pleaded guilty.

Sure, some people might not like printing the juvenile names — and keep in mind the Tribune held back from printing for months the four names we knew until the charges for all six defendants came out — but we feel most readers would agree now. There are clear, compelling reasons in this case to print names.

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.