If you’re a kid arrested for drinking underage at a party, and the cops file a report, your name will be in the paper and on our Web site.
It’s public information, accessible through the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, made simpler to find through our site.
That’s a basic function of any newspaper: To make it easier for citizens to get information. That’s why, for example, we send staffers to sit through meetings. Most people have better things to do, so we attend those sessions to help keep citizens informed.
The only difference in that very-traditional function, compared to a couple of decades ago, is that coverage now is loaded onto the Internet. There, its distribution is limited only by the number of people seeking access, and its lifespan limited only by the existence of electricity.
Here’s where all this comes together: In recent weeks, we’ve had the usual calls from people who want information “kept out of the paper.” It probably isn’t what you’d expect: Rarely do we hear from people afraid of a DUI or an arrest making it into the news.
Instead, we hear more often from people who want to keep a marriage license listing or a divorce out of the paper. And we sometimes are asked to remove a property transfer from our Web site, typically by people who’s seen their name pop up on a vanity search. We reject all those requests.
Lately, though, we’ve heard a different sort of plea: Specifically, from someone whose name was listed a while back among a group of young people cited for underage drinking.
What this person wants is to either have their name taken off the Internet immediately, or failing that, for it to have a “sunset” clause so it wouldn’t hang in the World Wide Web forever.
I’m willing to debate this request – not because it’s someone I know (I don’t), but because of the age.
I’ve always thought there is a good, philosophical reason for juvenile criminals to not be named in most cases. As a society, we generally believe juveniles shouldn’t be held accountable forever for minor infractions of their youth.
But what about relatively minor infractions in which someone under 18 is charged as an adult? What about underage drinking, which is the only crime for which someone older than 18 can be considered a minor (and which isn’t even illegal as long as it’s inside your own home)?
The person making this request isn’t seeking to duck the consequences. The worry is that through the unlimited life-span of items on the Internet, a relatively minor crime could haunt for years to come – potentially, interfering with college applications and scholarships, or job prospects later.
Now: Anyone who allows such a minor infraction to derail the future of an otherwise good applicant is a jerk. I don’t have any ability to de-jerkify the world. If I did, I know a bunch of people who would disappear immediately.
But I do have at least some ability to examine whether our job at informing the public also unwittingly derails opportunities for juveniles (adults, you’re on your own) who might not deserve to be stigmatized forever by a youthful mistake.
What do you think? I’d appreciate thoughtful suggestions.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Email barry.paschal@newstimes online.com, or call 706-863-6165, extension 106. Follow at twitter.com/