HAMBURG — The phone rings. A parent is on the other line, explaining breathlessly that his or her child has been arrested, and begging this newspaper to refrain from publishing the police report about the incident. Or the arrested individual calls us directly, with the plea to not print his or her name and crime in our publication.
The reasons we are given often vary: The arrested party makes good grades in school; is on the National Honor Society; is a member of the military; is applying for medical school; is getting married soon; is a new parent; is applying for a very competitive job.
Our response never varies. We do not pick and choose which names we print and which we do not. Period. And let me explain why.
First of all, a reminder that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. No federal, state or local authorities can legally abridge the freedom of the press.
In addition, New York’s Freedom of Information Law gives anyone – not just the press – the right to inspect the public records of any New York agency.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reported that police records “are open, unless some specific exemption would allow officers to deny access to the information.”
Some media outlets have had to jump through hoops to gain access to police reports, but we have been lucky, here at The Sun.
Many police departments – such as the town of Hamburg, the town of Evans and the Erie County Sheriff’s Office – voluntarily provide us with official police reports for publication in The Sun.
Based on the number of phone calls I receive when a week goes by without a police blotter in our publication, I would venture to say that our reading public understands the reasoning behind our printing police reports. We are often assured that people appreciate being kept in the know about the crimes happening near them.
The state Legislature clarified, in part of New York’s FOIL, that “government is the public’s business. The public, individually and collectively and represented by a free press, should have access to the records of government.”
We print a police blotter in The Sun because we feel that crimes committed within our coverage area are newsworthy, and we believe the public has the right to know about what laws are being broken – and by whom – in their backyard.
When a police department sends us official, public police reports, we have the legal right to print the information on that documentation. Those forms have been released to us, voluntarily, by the overseeing police agency.
If I had a dollar for every time a subject threatened to sue me or this publication for printing his or her name in a police report, I would be a very rich person. But we have been involved in exactly zero lawsuits regarding our police blotter, because the information published therein is already guaranteed public information, under FOIL.
Even if we do not publish an individual’s police report in the paper, that information is still available to anyone wishing to request it, under FOIL.
A common misconception is that newspapers cannot publish the names of minors. The United States Supreme Court ruled, in 1979, that journalists have the right to publish that information, as long as it has been “lawfully obtained and truthfully reported.”
The American Journalism Review said that “some journalists argue that naming juvenile suspects helps put a human face on violence [and] it contributes to public safety by reminding readers and listeners that kids can sometimes be just as dangerous as adults.”
The police do not always name minors in their published reports. In that case, we will specify that names are being withheld because of the perpetrators’ ages. But most of the time, if the police have released names, so will we.
I understand that criminals have rights too, under the law. But I am more concerned about the rights of the innocent victims who could have – or actually have – been harmed because of another’s actions.
We dance around this phrasing, when talking to someone who has asked to not be published in our police blotter; but the long and the short of it is, if he or she had not committed a crime, he or she would most likely not be the subject of a police report.
A person’s telling me that he or she has earned all A’s in school does not negate the fact that he or she was caught driving while intoxicated or under the influence of marijuana. It matters not what that person’s school report card might read, if he or she has put other people in harm’s way.
We join our area police departments in taking crime very seriously. It is not a light matter to drive while under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs. This type of choice is not canceled out by membership in the National Honor Society or enrollment at an Ivy League school.
I am sure that it is embarrassing for someone to call a newspaper and admit to having been caught breaking the law. But the mere act of picking up the phone and dialing a few numbers does not make that person free from the same guidelines as anyone else who has been arrested.
And, for those who think that we may exempt ourselves, the fact is, we have a policy here which states that, if someone on our staff is arrested and appears in a police report that we receive, that information will be printed in our police blotter. Some other newspapers additionally say that the arrested employee must actually type up his or her arrest information.
We have all heard the saying “Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time.”
Obey the law and you won’t be put in this situation. But do not blame your local newspaper or police department for your mistake. And please do not call The Sun to ask that we make an exception for you, because I can give you the answer to that request, right now.