Balancing the public’s right to know and personal privacy is not an easy job. It is something we in the news business struggle with every day.
Most of the time we get it right. Occasionally, however, we have gotten it horribly wrong. What we don’t need is the Tennessee General Assembly messing with the state’s public records law to address a situation that — to this date — hasn’t been a problem.
It is the policy of most, if not all, newspapers in this state to not identify the victim in rape cases. This is also the policy in most TV and radio newsrooms. That hasn’t stopped two state lawmakers from pushing passage of legislation to seal most of what is now public record in regard to rape cases.
State Sen. Becky Massey, R-Knoxville, and state Rep. Mary Littleton, R-Dickson, had originally drafted their legislation to make all identifying information about a victim of sexual assault confidential from the very start of a criminal investigation. Last week, the two agreed to amend the bill to seal identifying information about the victim only after a defendant had been found guilty either by trial or a plea agreement. Once that happens, the name, address, phone number, Social Security number and “any photographic or video depictions of the victim” will be closed to the public.
Victims do have a choice of signing a waiver to give up that confidentiality. That’s good news for those who argue victims should cast off the stigma that often accompanies sexual assault by telling their stories. Giving a face to this horrible crime can often help others who have also been a victim of rape.
Law enforcement officials across the state have made passage of this bill a top priority this year. Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch told this newspaper in March that the provision was needed to prevent celebrity news and gossip websites like TMZ.com from using video or photographs for “sensational” purposes. This argument has been heard a number of times from the bill’s proponents during debate on Capitol Hill.
Even so, Frank Gibson, the director of public policy for the Tennessee Press Association, says supporters have failed to cite a single example of how the current open records law has allowed victims to be further victimized by unscrupulous media outlets.
Gibson said the amended version of the bill, which was passed by the House of Representatives last week and is expected to reach the Senate floor for a vote this week, was a vast improvement over the original draft of the bill, which could have been a serious impediment to news coverage of rape trials.
Still, passage of the bill could pose some unique problems for journalists who wish to investigate new leads on closed rape cases in Tennessee. These records are now open, so the public can assess if all parties in rape cases — victims and defendants alike — were treated fairly in the investigation and court proceedings.
There is also the slippery slope that passage of this bill presents in regards to keeping public records open in Tennessee. What will be the next public record that law enforcement officials or state lawmakers will want to close?
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.