Q: A minor at your school has been arrested of a crime you think is important enough to report on because it involves the student council president and has implications to your school and community. You have obtained the police report. A parent of that student tells you over the phone that they intend to sue you if you publish the student’s name, and that it is against the law to publish the names of a minor involved in a crime. How do you respond?
A: One of the biggest media law myths out there — and one that affects student media disproportionately — is that the law prohibits or restricts the publication of minor names. The US Supreme Court made clear in a unanimous 1979 decision (Smith v. Daily Mail) that that the First Amendment protects the right of journalists to use the names of minors in newsworthy stories as long as the information is “lawfully obtained” and “truthfully” reported. While many news organizations do not publish the names of minors involved in less serious crimes, for example, the choice is an editorial decision, not something compelled by law.
It is true that invasion of privacy law can limit the publication of particularly intimate and private information — we’re talking about things like a person’s medical condition or sex life — about all individuals, including minors. But while being arrested for a crime is embarrassing, it is never a private matter for purposes of invasion of privacy law. That the arrested individual in this case is also the student council president undeniably adds to “newsworthiness” of the story and against a claim that the information should be treated as a private matter. That said, as long as you have “lawfully obtained” the police report (e.g. you didn’t illegally hack into the police database to obtain it) and as long as you fairly and accurately report the contents of the report, you are legally safe in publishing the student’s name if you choose.
The law aside (thankfully), we still urge all student media staff to make it standard practice to discuss whether publishing a minor’s name in an unflattering story is the right thing to do. Sometimes it will be an easy editorial call; other times not so much. (You can read more about factors that might go into your decision here.) But particularly in the Age of Google, where your story could have an impact on the subject for years to come, it’s worth taking time to discuss — so that you are prepared to defend, if necessary — the editorial/ethical basis for your decision.
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