Media, victims clash on crime censorship bill STATE HOUSE REPORT

February 10, 1993|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Staff Writer

Crime victims and news organizations clashed yesterday over legislation that would prohibit police in Maryland from publicly disclosing the names, addresses and telephone numbers of people victimized by violent crime.

Backers of the bill introduced by Sen. Janice Piccinini, a Baltimore County Democrat, argued that such censorship would assure the privacy rights of people already suffering as crime victims. It would protect them, she said, not only from the intrusiveness of the news media, but also from salesmen of security devices, lawyers seeking clients, or even criminals who might prey on the vulnerable.

"This gives the victims a little bit of time, a window of time, to deal with the trauma," said Senator Piccinini. She said, however, that the legislation would not violate the news media's First Amendment right to report the identity or address of crime victims if that information can be obtained from some other source. And if someone is ultimately charged with the crime, the victim's name would become a public record.

The Piccinini bill was backed by a number of victims' rights groups, by crime victims themselves or their families, by prosecutors, chiefs of police, state troopers and other police agencies, and by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Print and broadcast news organizations, led by The Sun, the Washington Post, WBAL radio, journalism groups and newspapers from several suburban counties, predicted that citizens will be denied information about crimes committed in their communities if the bill becomes law -- information the news organizations said citizens want.

"Do you know what crime is important to you?" Mike Powell, managing editor of the Frederick News-Post, asked the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee. "It's the one that's closest to you."

David Simon, a Sun reporter who has covered crime for 10 years and who recently wrote a book about homicides in Baltimore, told the committee that only through systematic interviews with crime victims can the press keep tabs on police, determining if the public is getting proper and equal protection, or if one segment of the community is being discriminated against.

2& "I'm not surprised that all the po

lice agencies are for this," he said. "They'll never have to fear about being monitored in any systematic way again."

Several witnesses said systematic interviews with crime victims -- an impossible feat without their names -- sometimes produced stories about crime trends, such as spousal abuse, about falsified reporting by police, or about failings in crime prevention through under-reporting of incidents in poor, black neighborhoods.

"This is a suburban white person's bill," said Mr. Simon, in testimony that one black member of the committee, Baltimore Democrat Ralph M. Hughes, said convinced him to oppose the bill.

Senator Piccinini said extensive media coverage of an armed robbery of a wealthy couple in the affluent Greenspring Valley area of Baltimore County last spring sparked her interest in the issue. She said she asked news organizations to adopt voluntarily a policy not to publicize the names, addresses or phone numbers of violent crime victims. When they refused, she introduced the bill.

Police agencies testified that they thought passage of the legislation would help criminal investigations because crime victims who now are unwilling to step forward for fear of publicity would do so.

But John S. Carroll, editor of The Sun, said the bill not only would bar news organizations from collecting systematic data about crime and crime prevention, but would also prevent other organizations, such as the NAACP or sexual assault groups, from conducting similar investigations.

"This kind of reporting is difficult to do and will be even more difficult or impossible if the names are sealed by law," Mr. Carroll said.

He and other news organization witnesses said the media occasionally go too far or make mistakes in identifying crime victims. But they also said the industry is becoming increasingly sensitive to the problem.

David Johnson, husband of a woman who was stabbed in the parking lot of Westview Mall in Baltimore County in October, complained that news articles involving his wife were hardly sensitive. He said they listed her full name, age and address, which led to her receipt of a frightening, threatening and sexually explicit letter from a man who had been incarcerated for 10 years.

"To find her, thanks to the media, was very easy," Mr. Johnson said.

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