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Publication of juvenile arrestee's name may not be punished

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   THIRD CIRCUIT   ·   Secret Courts   ·   May 3, 2005

Publication of juvenile arrestee’s name may not be punished

  • Truthful publication of information about an arrested juvenile is protected by the First Amendment even when police unlawfully disclosed the information, a federal appellate court ruled last week.

May 3, 2005  ·   The First Amendment protects a newspaper from liability for publishing information about a juvenile arrestee, even when the police broke the law in disclosing the information, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) ruled April 26.

The court held that because the information was true, the paper did not break the law to obtain it, and it concerned a matter of public significance, punishing the newspaper was not the most narrowly tailored way to protect the juvenile arrestee’s identity without intruding on First Amendment freedoms.

In November 2000, then 15-year-old James L. Bowley was arrested on suspicion of raping a 7-year-old girl he was babysitting. Police Officer Fred Balsley disclosed details of the arrest to the Uniontown, Pa., Herald-Standard, which published a short article about the arrest. Bowley was not convicted, and the Court of Appeals noted that it is unclear if he was even charged with the crime.

Bowley sued the city of Uniontown, the police department, Balsley and the Herald-Standard for violating a Pennsylvania law prohibiting the disclosure of juvenile law enforcement records, and for invasion of privacy.

In July 2003, the defendants moved the case from state to federal court, which dismissed the Herald-Standard from the case because its publication of the information was protected by the First Amendment. Bowley, who subsequently settled with the government defendants, appealed the dismissal of the newspaper from the case.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal. Basing much of its ruling on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Florida Star v. B.J.F. that a newspaper could not be punished for publishing a rape victim’s name, the court held that when information is truthful, lawfully obtained, and concerns a matter of public significance, its publication cannot be punished unless “the imposition of liability would be the most narrowly tailored way to serve a state interest of the highest order.”

Judge Richard L. Nygaard wrote that although Balsley violated the law by releasing the information, “his unlawful release … does not make receipt of that information by the Herald Standard unlawful.” Nygaard noted that the truth of the information was not disputed in the case, and that “the legitimacy of public concern regarding the rape of a minor cannot seriously be doubted.”

Without ruling whether protecting the anonymity of juvenile arrestees is a state interest of the highest order, Nygaard wrote that “when the government has stewardship over confidential information, not releasing the information to the media in the first place will more narrowly serve the interest of preserving confidentiality than will punishing the publication of the information once inappropriately released.” Thus the First Amendment barred imposing liability upon the newspaper, the court ruled.

(Bowley v. City of Uniontown Police Department, Media Counsel: Charles Kelly, Sinclair, Kelly, Jackson, Reinhart & Hayden, Canonsburg, Pa.)GP

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