How to Prevent Media from Reporting a Child Victim's Name
July 18, 2007 1:16 PM   Subscribe

Is there any law or regulation that prohibits the media from reporting the name of a child victim of sexual assault? Is there any way to prevent the media from disclosing such information? The issue is in California.

Specifically, a news paper is planning to report on a case involving sexual assault of a minor, and may include the minor's name in the report. The District Attorney has decided not to file criminal charges at this time, but a civil case is pending.
posted by metawabbit to Law & Government (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

Call a lawyer.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:36 PM on July 18, 2007

I think it's a convention that the media usually follows, but not a law. I'm not sure that under the First Amendment that such a law could stand.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:42 PM on July 18, 2007

You'd probably have a better shot by appealing to the newspaper's/reporter's professional ethics than by hoping to get an injunction in time if one is even possible. Note that although it's a common journalistic convention, editors can and do make exceptions.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 2:31 PM on July 18, 2007

Please also note that if what they publish is offensive, scandalous, damaging, but also true, then it is not libel and not actionable.

Under US law the truth is never libelous, even if revelation of the truth causes substantial damage. We have the right under the First Amendment to tell the truth.

Finally, keep in mind that courts are generally very reluctant to engage in any kind of "prior constraint" when it comes to any kind of expression.

My own advice is for you to talk to the people at the newspaper and beg them to change the article before they publish it.

I think that engaging in threats would be counterproductive. They know their situation under the law and threats would only make them stubborn.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:34 PM on July 18, 2007

The First Amendment to the US Constitution means that no such law would stand. However, I've never heard of any newspaper that prints the names of minor victims. If the perpetrator is a minor, the policy will vary depending on the paper.

As nakedcodedmonkey states, ethics are a good way to appeal to a newspaper editor. Newspapers know their legal rights, and don't respond well to people who try to bully them. If you're not having success communicating with a reporter, you'll want to talk to his or her editor. Above that person is usually another editor, and above that person is the publisher.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:35 PM on July 18, 2007

Newspapers know their legal rights, and don't respond well to people who try to bully them.

I think this is human nature. If you force the issue, they may publish just to spite you, and you will have no recourse.
posted by oaf at 2:40 PM on July 18, 2007

The case you want is The Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524 (1989). The Florida Star printed the name of a rape victim, in violation of Florida law. The victim was awarded damages. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that violates the First Amendment. So no, the newspaper pretty much is immune to legal coercion.
posted by raf at 2:44 PM on July 18, 2007

(IAAL, but this is not legal advice; consult competent counsel.)
posted by raf at 2:45 PM on July 18, 2007

Regarding Florida Star, the paper could have been penalized if they had gotten the information illegally. Bu under the First Amendment you may always publish truthful information that has been legally obtained. In the case in California, if the newspaper broke the law in gaining the information, they can be punished for that; but if they had a right to get the information then they have a right to publish it.
posted by katemonster at 3:19 PM on July 18, 2007

Under US law the truth is never libelous, even if revelation of the truth causes substantial damage.

Technically true, but awfully misleading.

The truth is an absolute defense against libel, but many jurisdictions allow for a tort called "Invasion of Privacy by False Light"

Very much like libel, except that it applies to TRUE statements that are put together in a way that casts the victim in a false light.

A majority of the states recognize false light as a viable claim... California is, I believe, among that majority.

An interesting (but old) article on it can be found here.
posted by toomuchpete at 3:21 PM on July 18, 2007

Specifically, a news paper is planning to report on a case involving sexual assault of a minor

Following so far.

and may include the minor's name in the report.

Not following. Why do you believe this is true? Has the newspaper done this in the past? What precedents do you have? Who told you this, and are they trustworthy? Is the information merely in the public record but not reported anywhere?

Personally, I would ask the newspaper if what you have been told is at all credible and ask them why.
posted by dhartung at 4:49 PM on July 18, 2007

nth-ing professional ethics / appeal to humanity and to not runing the minor's life more thoroughly than it has already been ruined. Legal threats aren't going to get you anywhere and may be counterproductive.

Consult a lawyer if you want but I don't really see how a false light claim would hold water in this case; false light claims revolve around making factually correct statements that lead people towards a damaging or factually incorrect conclusion -- saying "[according to whomever] Jane Doe was allegedly sexually assaulted," if indeed Jane Doe was allegedly sexually assaulted, and further assuming the information was lawfully obtained, doesn't seem like it would plausibly be either libel nor casting Jane Doe in a false light.

Unless you are hugely rich, legal action is an empty threat. You're better off asking the editor to restrain themselves for the good of people involved who don't deserve to be further hurt.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:37 PM on July 18, 2007

Metawabbit, do you know for certain the newspaper is going to publish the minor's name, or has it already during the criminal investigation? Most editors I know don't print a sex assault victim's name --minor or adult -- unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise.

You may be worrying over something that won't happen. But if it will make you feel better, call the Editor or the Managing Editor -- DON'T bother with a reporter -- and ask about the status of the story, that you've heard rumors they'll print the victim's name and is this newspaper policy? I'll bet the editor will come down on your side if you don't get angry and accusatory. Just sound worried, maybe cry a little. Most newspaper editors really are human beings, and some even have kids.
posted by Smalltown Girl at 7:25 PM on July 18, 2007

I thought newspapers only published such information about child victims when it was already widely known?
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:56 AM on July 19, 2007

It's been a while since I took media law (2001), but while it's certainly not illegal, most newspapers wouldn't publish a minor's name in the situation. The information would perform no public good, and could be harmful to the minor.
posted by drezdn at 6:37 AM on July 19, 2007

In other words, appeal to their sense of decency. Most journalists should be understanding in this situation.
posted by drezdn at 6:38 AM on July 19, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you all for the comments and advice. Before posting, I was pretty sure that any limits on the newspaper would be ethical rather than legal - all the comments seem to confirm this. To answer Smalltown Girl's question, I received some second-hand information that the paper may publish the name. In following everyone's advice, I plan to contact the editor of the paper, determine whether they will print the name, and gently appeal to his/her sense of decency if necessary.
posted by metawabbit at 9:36 AM on July 19, 2007

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