Columbia County authorities were getting ready to take a couple of kids to juvenile court for a hearing. The two boys were involved in vandalizing the middle school at Augusta Prep, and the cops were working on bringing in a third.
Photographer Jim Blaylock took a picture of them going into the courthouse, and anyone who knew them could easily identify them - but we didn't include their names when the photo was published on The Chronicle's Web site because the sheriff's office spokesman, Steve Morris, wouldn't give it to us.
It wasn't because he didn't want to, and that was the basis for a fascinating discussion: Trying to figure out exactly what the public, by way of the media, was legally entitled to know about the boys.
There is a tremendous difference between "want" and "need." With information, it's increasingly difficult to explain the difference.
For example, some people were hyper-critical of the initial lack of information from Fort Gordon after an imposter soldier was busted with illegal munitions in his car.
But was the desire for that information based on need, or on want? I doubt any of us were endangered by not immediately knowing more about the poser they'd arrested. We wanted more information, but we had no particular need for it.
When it comes to juvenile crimes, this becomes even more tangled. We accept the view that the public is entitled to information about adult crimes and criminals. After all, in a free society that information helps us make decisions about such things as how to protect ourselves, where we live, where we shop and with whom we associate.
With juveniles, though, we have a system that allows us to know about their crimes, but hides the identity of most of the criminals. Such a system evolved from the understanding that young people committing crimes have a greater chance of a turnaround than adults, and that protecting their identity is part of that redemption.
After all, it doesn't do any good to give someone a chance at a clean start after childhood misbehavior if a permanent public record follows them around forever.
We recognize exceptions: Major felonies, such as murder and armed robbery, remove identity protection. The understanding is that the crime is so major that the public deserves to know who is responsible.
That's also why those crimes can send juveniles as young as 13 to adult jail and court. If they're under 13, though, they still get full protection of their identity.
All these laws, customs and philosophies evolved for the most part before the instant-communication electronic era. It's more difficult now to protect juvenile's identities, which also means we stand to lose much of the redemptive nature of the juvenile court system. That would be a shame if it also means we stand to lose more juveniles to adult crime.
An ironic twist to this, too, is the fact that those routinely calling for identification of juvenile criminals are members of the public who post comments in online forums - nearly always anonymously.
Think about it: These people hide their identities while dragging juvenile lawbreakers into the public square.
Isn't that what the Klu Klux Klan was about - hiding behind masks to inflict their vision of justice on others?
Anonymous online posters, particularly the nastier ones, often claim they hide their identities to protect themselves. The KKK supposedly wore hoods to strike fear into their victims. But one reason for such anonymity is simpler: Cowardice.
There's something poetic about a movement in newspaper circles to dial back anonymous posts, with some forums requiring identification of those making online comments just as they do with printed letters to the editor.
These evolving changes take place even as we debate how much information should be revealed about juvenile lawbreakers. If there is good to come from it, perhaps it will be that shining more light on both will result in fewer of them.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com, or call 706-863-6165, extension 106. Follow at twitter.com/barrypaschal.)
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