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Newspaper should have had access to records in teen drinking case

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  1. Freedom of Information
Newspaper should have had access to records in teen drinking case 11/30/98 MASSACHUSETTS--The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Boston, the…

Newspaper should have had access to records in teen drinking case

11/30/98

MASSACHUSETTS–The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Boston, the state’s highest court, held in early November that a newspaper should have had full access to court cases in which Robert and Andrea Berkowitz of Sharon were fined for serving alcohol to minors at a party at their home.

The court held that the lower court’s order preventing the press from fully reporting on the cases violated free-press rights and amounted to an “unlawful prior restraint.” The court stated that prior restraints on reports of criminal proceedings “have long been held presumptively unconstitutional,” and reasoned that any judicial order limiting speech must identify a “compelling interest” and show that “no reasonable, less restrictive alternative to the order is available.”

According to the court, because the trial court had opened the proceedings and the court records to the public, the trial judge had a “particularly high burden of justification” in order to impose limits on the press.

The court held that the trial judge failed to meet this high burden because there were no detailed findings of fact clearly showing the compelling state interest. The court noted that the trial judge merely alluded to the expectation that during pretrial proceedings, the identities of certain children would be mentioned and, that during trial, children would be called to testify about their delinquent conduct.

In June 1997, the Berkowitzes were charged with 10 counts of serving alcohol to a minor and with contributing to the delinquency of a minor after they allegedly served beer and liquor to their son and his friends at their home. The case against them was transferred out of the general division in August 1997 based on a state law that gives juvenile courts jurisdiction over charges of contributing to delinquency of a minor.

Mary McCallum, a judge in the juvenile division of the Norfolk County District Court in Stoughton, closed her courtroom during the first pretrial hearing in the case in September 1997. The (Quincy) Patriot Ledger appealed, arguing that the court’s ruling was an unconstitutional restriction on public access to criminal trials of adults. In late October 1997, a mid-level appellate court in Boston upheld McCallum’s order forbidding the news media to publish any identifying information about the minors testifying in court, despite the fact that the trial would be open to the public. Relying on a 1996 Massachusetts case, the Appeals Court held that maintaining the confidentiality of juvenile proceedings was a compelling state interest that overrode the public’s First Amendment right of access to the proceedings. The Ledger thereafter appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, which denied the newspaper’s request to delay the trial until the appeal is resolved.

In Massachusetts, juvenile court proceedings generally are closed to the public, except for cases in which minors are charged with specific serious crimes. The trial of adults in juvenile court is restricted to cases in which they are charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. (George W. Prescott Publishing Co. v Stoughton Division of the District Court; Media Counsel: Sarah Columbia, Boston)