Government shouldn’t have right to mandate content of news

Wednesday, May 9, 2001

(Editor's note: Copyright 2001, The News Leader. Reprinted by permission. This is the first in a series of occasional “Other Voices” — guest commentaries from newspapers on various First Amendment issues.)

A battle between a weekly newspaper and the state government provides a compelling illustration of how easy it is for cracks to appear in the First Amendment in this country. Unfortunately, the outcome of the battle is less than satisfactory, a Pyrrhic victory perhaps. In our view, it was a retreat, and a cowardly and greedy retreat at that.

At issue is a proposed law in Washington state that would mandate that “newspapers of record” — those which receive paid legal notices from government agencies, such as The News Leader — must notify their readers via “notices in news columns” of sex-offenders who live in their area.

Please note: We heartily support the concept of sex-offender registration and community notification of the whereabouts of such offenders — and, for the record, Washington state has required county sheriffs to notify communities of sex-offenders in their area since 1990, much as the Virginia state police has since 1998, via their Web site, Residents should be aware of this information; although it may seem cruel and insensitive, the recidivism rate among violent sex-offenders and those who have sexually molested children is historically high. The argument that they have “paid their debt to society” by serving time in prison for their offense(s) is compelling, and the humanistic response to “live and let live” laudable, but the ugly truth still hangs in the air.

But, should newspapers be compelled by government order to print that information? No. Newspapers should, and most responsible ones do, report on cases involving sex-offenders while they are “live” news. But once those cases recede from the forefront of public and legal scrutiny, once a verdict is reached, once the offender has served his or her time, it should be of no news value to the community. If a system is in place to notify communities of the presence of sex-offenders, that system should be overseen by some wing of the state government; i.e., law enforcement.

In this case, The Shelton-Mason County Journal, a 9,400-circulation weekly based in Shelton, Wash., refused to run information regarding sex-offenders as news. Unfortunately, its publisher, Charlie Gay, rolled over and said the newspaper would run such information as paid advertising. That action both smacks of mercenarism and hypocrisy, and just gives credence to much of the public's perception of “the media” as money-grubbing weasels. Worse, it put another crack in the First Amendment.

Fortunately, The Seattle Times, the only other newspaper in Washington that does not routinely run sex-offender releases as news, is still hanging tough. But for how long? Will money talk and principle walk again?

Dennis Neal is opinion editor of The News Leader in Staunton, Va. He won the Virginia Press Association's D. Lathan Mims Award for editorial service to the community in 1998. This commentary originally appeared March 17 in The News Leader.

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