In Blair, a disturbing case has emerged that is prompting a serious debate about juvenile justice, privacy, and the rights of the accused. Three teenagers, two aged 13 and one 14, stand accused of first-degree sexual assault of a child, and possession of a visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct1. The case is distinguished not only by the gravity of the alleged offenses but also by the decision to publicly release the names of the accused minors.
The story of this tragic set of circumstances was reported by Cheyenne Alexis for the Washington County Pilot-Tribune & Enterprise. I was stunned to see names of the minors involved, and read the graphic details. The paper also did not put the story behind a pay wall – they believed it was important enough for all to read free. Now, I purposefully will not report the names of the minors alleged to have committed the crimes they are accused of. However, do not mistake my choice to leave the names out as a condemnation of either Cheyenne Alexis, or the Enterprise. They reported on a difficult story in an unflinching manner that demands introspection.
It’s not often a story like this hits the stands in Blair, and in this case, the Enterprise made a bold, if controversial, choice.
The practice of identifying minors charged as adults is sometimes a contentious issue, with a considerable variation in approach from state to state. In the United States, the naming of minors in such situations is legally protected. This protection largely stems from a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1979, Smith v. Daily Mail, which upheld the right of journalists to use the names of minors involved in newsworthy stories, as long as the information was lawfully obtained and truthfully reported 2. This precedent has been subsequently applied in numerous instances, including a case in New Jersey where the right of a newspaper to publish the name and other identifying information about a 16-year-old charged with a serious crime was affirmed 3.
To delve into the issue, let us consider three pros and three cons of publicly naming minors charged as adults:
- Transparency and Public Interest: There is a public right to know about criminal proceedings, especially those involving serious crimes. This transparency can contribute to ensuring justice is served and that the community is aware of potential dangers.
- Accountability: Charging and naming minors as adults could act as a potent deterrent for other young people contemplating similar actions. It underscores the severity of the crimes and their consequential penalties.
- Consistency: If a minor is being charged as an adult, it is argued that they should be treated as such in all respects, including the public disclosure of their identity. This approach can be seen as more aligned with the overall stance of the legal system.
- Future Impact: Minors, even those who have committed serious offenses, possess the potential for rehabilitation. Publicly revealing their identities can result in enduring harm and stigma, potentially obstructing their ability to rejoin society after serving their sentences.
- Protection of Minors: Children are generally perceived as needing greater protection, including privacy, even when they commit grave offenses. The public identification of minors contradicts this principle, potentially inflicting psychological harm and subjecting them to public backlash.
- Potential for Miscarriage of Justice: Disclosing a minor’s name before a verdict could potentially prejudice the case, affecting the fairness of the trial and leading to a miscarriage of justice.
As the case in Blair, Nebraska unfolds, these pros and cons will undoubtedly continue to fuel a substantial debate. Whether the practice of naming minors charged as adults is ultimately viewed as serving or undermining the cause of justice, the discussion underscores the multifaceted intersection of youth, crime, and media in today’s society.
It would have been easy for the Enterprise to have not printed the names of those accused. As I type these, final words, of my article, I wonder how I would have handled things – if I was first to report it. I’m not sure. Truly, I’m not sure.
It’s one of those things where you just wished it hadn’t happened in the first place.
- Blair Enterprise Publishing, “Three minors charged as adults in sexual assault case”
- Student Press Law Center, “Naming names: Identifying minors – Smith v. Daily Mail”
- Student Press Law Center, “Naming names: Identifying minors – In re H.N.”