The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Volokh Conspiracy

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)….