Keeping secrets [Editorial]

Our view: The drowning of a Parkville teen in Ocean City has raised serious questions about the public's right to information withheld by police

September 29, 2014

Last week, Gannett Co. Inc., owner of The Daily Times in Salisbury, filed a lawsuit in Worcester County Circuit Court to force Ocean City to release the name of a 17-year-old drowning victim from Parkville. A number of the newspaper's readers have already expressed outrage at the litigation, with one letter writer describing it as "wrong, just plain wrong" and others questioning what possible public interest is served by knowing the name, particularly given that the victim's family has specifically asked that it not be released.

Such circumstances are heart-rending, but here's the problem: When we allow law enforcement agencies to keep some things secret — aside from matters specifically exempted from public release by law, such as information related to an active police investigation or a personnel matter — the broader public suffers. Today, it is the name of a drowning victim, but what will it be tomorrow? The name of a police officer charged with a crime? The name of a councilman pulled over for drunk driving? Surely, either would be happy for such matters to be kept private.

When police or any government body choose to be secretive about what they do, the public can no longer make informed judgments about what is going on in their community. It is not too great a leap to suggest that democracy hinges on people being able to understand and respond to government actions, and the press plays a role in providing the necessary facts.

The media withholds information all the time, of course — the names of sexual assault victims, for instance. But there is a difference when a newspaper, a TV station or an average citizen chooses to keep silent. That is their right. It is different with government. Under the Maryland Public Information Act, it is up to the Ocean City Police Department and Ocean City to demonstrate why they are legally entitled to withhold public records.

That is the principle at stake in this lawsuit — whether a government agency can withhold information from the public by whim or to spare someone's feelings or whatever noble intention you may want to offer. As the law states, all persons "are entitled to have access to information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees."

If The Daily Times wins the case, should it publish the name of the individual who drowned in the rip currents off 92nd Street in Ocean City on June 13? That's another matter entirely. Whether the name is published is not the issue. What's troubling is that Ocean City should make that decision for The Daily Times. It is not their call. Not when there is no active investigation or other exemption provided for under law.

Michael Kilian, the newspaper's executive editor, summarized the matter of privacy versus public scrutiny succinctly in a piece published last Thursday. "It is unfortunately necessary that we pursue this case, in expectation that government officials will realize that following the law is what their duty requires."

To that, we can only add, "Amen." We can appreciate that many find this matter distasteful. Ocean City officials say they have routinely withheld the names of juvenile accident victims in the past. They say the family genuinely doesn't want it to come out. And this is a cause unlikely to win over a lot of Eastern Shore readers.

Recent comments on the newspaper's Facebook page include, "Shame on you, Gannett" and "You are a predator and a hack." Not every reader response has been critical, but most have been and passionately so. At least one has suggested the newspaper stands to profit from the release — though given the public reaction, the opposite would seem more likely. "I know it's not normal for the media to show some class but try — please," wrote another.

Perhaps the case would fare better in the court of public opinion if this were about uncovering the name of a murderer or child molester, but those circumstances would also be irrelevant. This is about the public's right to know what its government is doing regardless of whether it involves a death in the surf or a fender bender on the highway. It is a principle that makes investigations like The Sun's recent findings on cases of police brutality in Baltimore possible. The Daily Times is correct to stand up for the public's right to know, and Ocean City is wrong to stand against it.


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