There’s only one sure way to keep your name out of the news: Don’t do anything that is routinely reported by your local news outlets.
Most of the time, that means don’t be arrested for anything serious, and don’t get sued for anything serious. There are some types of public records that my newsroom routinely reports each week inside the paper, such as marriages and property transactions, but as far as avoiding being on the front page or listed as being charged with a crime, you should keep your head down, be a good citizen, and don’t make trouble.
Like most newspapers, the News-Topic reports many arrests, and we try to cover the most serious cases when they go to court.
Sometimes people call and ask whether we would keep someone’s arrest out of the paper. Sorry, no. We have to try to treat everyone the same. If we start making exceptions because someone’s mother or children will be embarrassed, we would have to stop printing all of the arrests.
Last May, I received a letter from an inmate at the Caldwell County Detention Center asking me “to please not put my name in the paper for any reason. Or any thing concerning my case.”
He complained that a story we ran last January about a court hearing that had been called for him to enter a plea deal, pleading guilty in exchange for a lenient sentence, only to have him back out at the last minute, was not accurate, though what was in the story was exactly what both his lawyer and the prosecutor said in open court had happened.
“That (story) vilated my rights,” he wrote. “I haven’t even gone to trial and that made me sound guilty before I could get a fair trial. You embaresed me and my family.”
The legal process in the United States is not set up to shield everyone’s identity, just in case someone is not guilty, until the outcome of a case has been decided. It is set up to be open to the public so that members of the public can look up any information they want, observe legal proceedings and therefore be assured that the legal system strives to be just. The jury selection process, however, has steps for lawyers to be able to exclude from a jury anyone whose mind was made up by previous news coverage.
The News-Topic, like any news organization, chooses the cases it covers based on a judgment of which cases are serious enough or unusual enough that we think many people will want to know what happened. In those cases, we do exactly what any member of the public is welcome to do: We go to the courthouse, sit in the audience and listen. You can do it too, if you are quiet and obey the rules of the courthouse. Your friends, neighbors and co-workers can do it too. No one needs to make reservations. Leave your cellphone and pocketknife in the car, but you can show up unannounced, pass through the metal detector and walk right in. The state even maintains a website where you can see whose cases are tentatively scheduled to be heard in each term of court. Literally anyone on Earth with an Internet connection can read those names and see what the charges are.
Before a case has a court hearing, if there is something about the case that we want to find out, we go to the clerk of court’s office and ask to see particular public records on the case. The term “public records” includes the word “public” for a reason. It means those are records that are open to any member of the public, not just reporters. You can go read them yourself, but in some cases, depending on what you want, you might have to pay to get a copy instead of seeing the original file.
The letter from the inmate last May concluded: “I don’t wont my name in the paper period. I will take legal actions if my name is in the paper again. Thank you.”
No thanks were necessary, because we didn’t comply, and wouldn’t. We can’t. I’d get fired if I were to.
And any lawyer in the country will tell you that you can’t win a lawsuit accusing a news organization of violating your privacy because it reported on your arrest, criminal case, court hearing, court records and/or trial.
The inmate’s name wasn’t in the paper for the past few months, but that particular case came to trial last week, and Allen Duane Parlier, 44, of Hudson was convicted as charged (linked story is behind a paywall) of statutory rape and indecent liberties with a child, who in this case was a 15-year-old girl at the time of the events in question. By going to trial, Parlier caused far more details embarrassing to his family to become public than would have if he had taken the plea that prosecutors offered, so we don’t think he was motivated to write to us to protect his family, and he appeared to admit just before his sentencing that he lied under oath during his trial, so we can’t really put a lot of stock in the assertions of the letter he sent to us anyway. But we didn’t cover his case to spite him. We just covered it, the same as we did for dozens of cases last year and will for dozens more this year.
If you happen to be arrested and you wish to minimize further damage to your reputation, the two best things for that are a good lawyer and sincere prayer, but there are limits to what even those can accomplish.