Juvenile Court Files May Be Sealed, But Juvenile Case Can Still Be Talked About

and the media can still ask school officials about them—"if the statute is broadly applied in an attempt to bar the Media Defendants' right to question sources, then the statutory language assuredly violates the First Amendment."

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

From Doe v. Community Newspaper Holding, Inc., 2020 WL 1566986, a Mississippi trial court case decided last month by Judge Charles W. Wright:

According to the Complaint, "on or about April 13, 2017," Plaintiff John Doe "was arrested at his home in Collinsville, Lauderdale County, Mississippi on a charge of sexual battery alleged to have occurred in March 2017" and was [one] of five students arrested in connection with the events at issue. The Complaint also avers that "the sexual battery charge alleged against John Doe was dropped on April 20, 2017." Plaintiffs thus concede both that John Doe was arrested and that the charges were dropped a week later.

Both the Meridian Star and WTOK reported on these arrests, as well as statements School Superintendent Randy Hodges and Chief Deputy Ward Calhoun about the events at issue…. Plaintiffs complain about a WTOK broadcast aired on April 13, 2017, reporting that five West Lauderdale High School students had been "arrested … on charges of sexual battery" and that a "source confirms that at least one of the suspects was on the West Lauderdale Baseball team." The broadcast reports that five students had been arrested … [and] "… All are charged as juveniles with sexual battery." …

Plaintiffs [also] complain about an online article that WTOK published a week later, on April 20, 2017, under the headline "Sexual battery charge dropped against WLHS baseball player." According to Plaintiff's Complaint,

"The article reported, 'Superintendent Randy Flodges says a high school baseball player, who was one of the five students charged with the sexual battery of a classmate has now had the charge dismissed. He says he can't comment any further on the case since all of the accused are minors. Newscenter 11 has not heard any official word on whether charges against any of the other four students have been dropped. Hodges says a decision on disciplinary action for those students who have been charged will be made on a case by case basis once he has all the facts.'"

Plaintiffs contend that the "identification of one of the arrestees" as a "'baseball player' by Hodges and the publication of that information by WTOK," allowed the community "to identify the Minor by process of elimination." Plaintiffs assert causes of action for "Invasion of Privacy-Public Disclosure of Private Facts," "Negligence Per Se," and "Intentional/Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress," in each case contending that WTOK violated Miss. Code Ann. § 43-21-261 [the Youth Court Act]….

The Youth Court Act generally prohibits disclosure of youth court records as follows: "Except as otherwise provided in this section, records involving children shall not be disclosed, other than to necessary staff of the youth court or a youth court appointed special advocate (CASA) volunteer that may be assigned in an abuse and neglect case, except pursuant to an order of the youth court specifying the person or persons to whom the records may be disclosed, the extent of the records which may be disclosed and the purpose of the disclosure."

Plaintiff contends that Miss. Code Ann. § 43-21-261(1) prohibits Defendants', WTOK-TV and the Meridian Star, from reporting on the arrests of the five minors and establishes a basis for liability. Further, Plaintiff alleges that Miss. Code Ann. § 43-21-267(1) supports the position that Defendant's unlawfully encouraged Superintendent Randy Hodges to disclose information involving youth court records without proper authorization.

Contrary to the Plaintiff's suggestion, the youth court records statute does not prohibit all discussion of events involving juveniles or alleged offenses. Instead, on its face, it prohibits only the disclosure of sealed youth court records …[—]"the general docket, papers, pleadings, social records, the minute book, proceedings, evidence, and any information obtained by the youth court from the Administrative Office of Courts." Plaintiffs do not allege (nor could they) that WTOK or the Meridian Star had access to any such records.

Moreover, Plaintiffs concede that, under the … statute, "law enforcement agencies may disclose information to the public concerning the taking of a child into custody for the commission of a delinquent act without the necessity of an order from the youth court." Completely consistent with this statutory authority, in the April 13 broadcast, Chief Deputy Ward Calhoun appears on camera discussing the arrests and underlying events, including specifically referencing the youth court and the punishments it can impose.

Despite the limited scope of the statute's plain language, its express authorization of the communications at issue here, and the fact that it nowhere creates a private, civil cause of action, Plaintiffs contend that the statute prohibits WTOK and the Meridian Star from reporting on these arrests and establishes a basis for liability.

In In re R.J.M.B., however, the [Mississippi] Supreme Court effectively rejected this argument. There, the Court distinguished between a parent's ability to disclose youth court records and the same parent's lawful ability to discuss with the media what happened at a youth court hearing. Although the Court upheld the statutory prohibition on disclosing youth court records, it reversed a gag order prohibiting any discussion of what had occurred at a youth court hearing. In doing so, the Court noted that, although the statute governed the disclosure of records, it did not restrict all speech about other related events, including events that occurred in the youth court….

Here, the disputed news reports do not appear to discuss youth court records, instead, the reports discuss statements made about the incidents by the School Superintendent Randy Hodges and Chief Deputy Ward Calhoun. Miss. Code Ann. § 43-21-261(1) states "law enforcement agencies may disclose information to the public concerning the taking of a child into custody for the commission of a delinquent act without the necessity of an order from the youth court."

Further, Plaintiffs contend that the Media Defendants, when present in Superintendent Randy Hodges office, encouraged Hodges to disclose details about the detained students, including Plaintiff, in violation of Miss. Code Ann. § 43-21-267(1). And, in response to this encouragement from the reporters, Hodges, at a minimum, identified Plaintiff as "an athlete" and/or "a baseball player." Hodges disclosure allegedly led to Plaintiff becoming publicly identified as the patty charged in this crime….

The Plaintiffs assert that the Media Defendants should be held criminally and civilly liable for damages under Miss. Code Ann. 43-21-267(1); however, if the statute is broadly applied in an attempt to bar the Media Defendants' right to question sources, then the statutory language assuredly violates the First Amendment ….

In Nicholson v. McClatcby Newspapers (Cal. Ct. App. 1986), "the news gathering component of the freedom of the press—the right to seek out information—is privileged at least to the extent it involves 'routine … reporting techniques."' Such techniques include asking questions of people with confidential or restricted information.

The Supreme Court of the United States has consistently held that states may not punish the publication of truthful matters by the media. Smith v. Daily Mail Publ'g, 443 U.S. 97, 102 (1979). In Daily Mail, the newspaper reported the name of a 14 year old student accused of shooting a classmate, after identifying the suspect through witness interviews and after his name had been disseminated by others. By publishing the story, the newspaper violated a state statute prohibiting the publishing of the names of minors involved in juvenile proceedings without prior court order. The Court ruled for the Newspaper holding that the State could not punish truthful publication.

It is the opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States, that as a general matter, state action to punish the publication of truthful information seldom can satisfy constitutional standards. If a newspaper lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance then state officials may not constitutionally punish publication of the information, absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order. Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524, 533 (1989)….

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  1. source confirms that at least one of the suspects was on the West Lauderdale Baseball team.

    That, there is some horrifically bad journalism. And this, here makes it worse,

    And, in response to this encouragement from the reporters, Hodges, at a minimum, identified Plaintiff as “an athlete” and/or “a baseball player.” Hodges disclosure allegedly led to Plaintiff becoming publicly identified as the patty charged in this crime….

    In general, if you are going to publish that someone has been charged criminally, or is otherwise implicated in embarrassing or disreputable behavior, you ought to either get the name, or, alternatively, eschew narrowing the field. If you do not get the name, and do narrow the field, you invite “informed,” speculation. Predictably, time and again, that kind of public speculation will settle on someone innocent. Even if the speculation is accurate by chance, the blurred imputation of guilt extends to all those among the larger set of candidates alluded to.

    If your publishing has produced that result, you are doing it wrong. Publishing is not gossip by other means.

    1. Damn, that is some horrifically bad copy editing. It should have had the italics this way:

      source confirms that at least one of the suspects was on the West Lauderdale Baseball team.

      That, there is some horrifically bad journalism. And this, here makes it worse,

      And, in response to this encouragement from the reporters, Hodges, at a minimum, identified Plaintiff as “an athlete” and/or “a baseball player.” Hodges disclosure allegedly led to Plaintiff becoming publicly identified as the patty charged in this crime….

      In general, if you are going to publish that someone has been charged criminally, or is otherwise implicated in embarrassing or disreputable behavior, you ought to either get the name, or, alternatively, eschew narrowing the field. If you do not get the name, and do narrow the field, you invite “informed,” speculation. Predictably, time and again, that kind of public speculation will settle on someone innocent. Even if the speculation is accurate by chance, the blurred imputation of guilt extends to all those among the larger set of candidates alluded to.

      If your publishing has produced that result, you are doing it wrong. Publishing is not gossip by other means.

      1. But the press was merely reporting on the superintendent’s comments.

        You might want to fault the superintendent for narrowing the field, but not the press.

        1. Apedad, publishing has its own set of responsibilities. If the school superintendent blunders in a damaging way, that in no way implies an obligation to multiply that damage by publishing the blunder heedlessly.

          A good publisher (and well-trained reporters) will find ways to hold the superintendent to task, while omitting case-specific blather which will almost surely lead the public to impute guilt to innocent parties. How to do that will always depend on circumstances particular to the way the story unfolds.

          A good start in this case might be to contact the school superintendent immediately, as soon as he makes his vague announcement, and demand the specific name. Explain that the announcement is unpublishable without it. That would probably lead to retreat back to standard policy of non-release of information—a statement which could be published without harm to innocents. However, other responses might follow, and those would have to be managed according to their specifics.

          In any case, the public policy question of the superintendent’s competence and continued tenure could be raised later, as a separate question, in the context of a broader review of the record, without reference to specific case details. After the case in question is out of the way, and presumably resolved, only the conduct of the superintendent himself will strike readers as germane. Before using that approach, you would probably want a pattern of repeated bad conduct to justify such a story. That would make the story easier to write, and more important at the same time.

      2. I’m not condemning the press — I’ve been there and done it.

        But the Superintendent should have known better and not said what he did. I never cease to be amazed at what Superintendents say & do — the EdD curriculum includes courses on school law which teach you what you are & aren’t supposed to do.

        Bluntly, this appears to be malpractice….

    2. What the paper /ought/ to do and what the law can require are two totally different things. Even accepting your normative view, it’s not the States’ job to enforce excellence in journalism.

      And fwiw, I do actually sincerely agree with you on the normative side here too. A vague insinuation that doesn’t narrow it down to a single person by name is irresponsible.

  2. ….the reports discuss statements made about the incidents by the School Superintendent Randy Hodges and Chief Deputy Ward Calhoun. Miss. Code Ann. § 43-21-261(1) states “law enforcement agencies may disclose information to the public concerning the taking of a child into custody for the commission of a delinquent act without the necessity of an order from the youth court.”

    Yes, but if the State of Mississippi wishes to receive Federal Funding, the Federal Educational Records Privacy Act (FEERPA) at least precludes the Superintendent from releasing any “personally identifiable information” about any current or former student.

    Law enforcement gets messy — really messy — because law enforcement information comes under one set of rules, while school information comes under another, and there are some narrow exception for crimes of violence, which this may (or may NOT) be depending on the nuances of Mississippi Juvenile Law — i.e. was he charged with “having committed a forcible sex act” or “being a delinquent child.”

    “Directory information”, including membership in athletic teams (and height/weight of athletes) is public unless/until the parent requests it not be.

    That school system violated FERPA….

    1. What constitutes personally identifiable information? The fact that the accused was male? An athlete? A baseball player?

  3. “Juvenile Court Files May Be Sealed, But Juvenile Case Can Still Be Talked About”

    Something similar happened when I was advising a student newspaper. For a variety of reasons, mostly political, about a half dozen women alleged to have been raped in the middle of campus, the first in broad daylight. All were eventually proven to be unfounded, but that wasn’t known yet, and there was a big rally protesting rape.

    In the midst of this, a woman widely known to have mental issues, who’d twice attempted suicide on campus within the prior year (that I know of), sliced her face with a knife and then ran (blood gushing) into the midst of the crowd, screaming that she had just been attacked.

    Both the fire department (paramedics) and police department asked her what happened, the FD to evaluate for a possible concussion (not uncommon in physical assaults) and the PD to catch the perp — and when they compared notes afterwards, they realized they had two *completely* different stories. Basic stuff like had she gotten out of her vehicle before she was attacked or not.

    A reporter for the local (city) newspaper just happened to be at the hospital when she arrived there (for treatment of the self-inflicted lacerations) and recognized her, and hence had her name. Others reporters figured out who she was either by noticing her with a bloody face, or the released information of the model & color of her vehicle, or her not being on campus after this — that’s how we found out. I suspect that other reporters were outright told by sources.

    Massachusetts has a law that prevents the authorities from releasing a rape victim’s name and the local DA was interpreting that to apply to newspapers, threatening reporters with arrest if they printed it, even though it was known that no rape had occurred and that her name was relevant to say that none had.

    And there was a legitimate public safety interest in doing so because her allegation had literally shut down the campus just like the Wuhan Virus.

    It does get better — she proceeded to threaten to sue the university for libel if they didn’t tell everyone that she’d been raped (I fail to see why they couldn’t have just said *nothing*, how avoiding libel was an affirmative duty) and instead of charging her with the crime of falsely reporting a crime, the spineless university negotiates with her for 3 months until the settlement is that she admits it didn’t happen, without consequences. But I digress.

    But this is a case where the criminal law was used to censor the press — and this reminded me of that.

    1. I can think of a couple of reasons why you would make up a story like this, and none of them are good.

      1. And if I didn’t?!?

        “…. a fourth woman had been attacked – again on a Tuesday afternoon in central campus, this time with a knife – even as a mass rally against the violence was going forward outside the Student Union.

        This last report later proved false. It was recanted early in December by the “very remorseful” student who had filed it. That she was not identified angered many, including those concerned that false claims discredit genuine ones.”

        See — and please note that this is an official university publication — the alumni magazine: https://www.umass.edu/umassmag/archives/2000/winter2000/pond.html

        1. It also doesn’t confirm any of the noteworthy details of your version—particularly your characterization of it as “a case where the criminal law was used to censor the press”.

          1. So because no one was willing to get arrested means that it didn’t happen?!? No, I don’t have voicemails from 20 years ago, do you?

            I was there, I say it happened. You weren’t, and…..

    1. I mean, if the maximalist contentions of conservatives on religious freedom that we have seen in the wake of Hobby Lobby are taken as true, maybe.

      But that’s just an argument that the maximalist contentions of conservatives on religious freedom are terribly wrong.

    2. You know how, if you were trying to find the best recipe for barbeque sauce for your brisket, you would not read PETA’s newsletter?

      Well, PETA is more qualified to opine on that than anyone from The Federalist is to opine on any fact or law.

      1. How very openminded….

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