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Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Co.


The Supreme Court found that two local newspapers could not be prosecuted for publishing the identity of a juvenile defendant. The Court held that if a newspaper obtains truthful information about a matter of public importance then the state can not constitutionally punish its publication, unless the state identifies an exceptional need to restrict the information. The argument of compelling interest to protect a juvenile for future rehabilitation purposes was not considered sufficient by the Court. In fact, the Court held under a "lawfully obtained" standard that states would rarely be able to demonstrate sufficient interest to restrict publication of truthful information. The practice of concealing juvenile offenders' identities was increasingly questioned by the public during a period of rising youth violence in the 1990s.

In February of 1978 a 14-year-old student shot and killed a 15-year-old classmate at Hayes Junior High School in St. Albans, West Virginia. Several eyewitnesses identified the alleged assailant arrested shortly after the shooting. Reporters and photographers for two nearby Charleston newspapers arrived shortly after the shooting to cover the incident. The reporters of both papers obtained the assailant's name at the scene through interviews with witnesses, police, and an assistant prosecuting attorney. The Charleston Daily Mail published a news article on the incident that same evening, but did not reveal the alleged juvenile offender's name as directed by state law. The Charleston Gazette, however, chose to include the assailant's name in their morning edition the following day. Meanwhile, at least three local radio stations broadcast the name of the assailant on the day of the crime and the following day. With the name of the assailant then public knowledge, the Daily Mail included the name in their next evening edition.

Three weeks later a grand jury indictment was issued against both newspapers alleging the papers knowingly published the name of the youth without state-required court approval. In response, the two papers filed a petition with the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to stop legal action claiming the law violated their constitutional rights. The court concurred the state showed no compelling reason that state's interest in protecting the juvenile's identity outweighed the constitutional protections of press freedom. The court thus held the law requiring written permission by a juvenile court judge prior to publishing a juvenile's identity posed a "prior restraint" on free speech. The court thus prohibited the prosecuting attorney and county circuit court judges from pursuing prosecution of the two newspapers. The case was taken by the Supreme Court in 1978.

The newspapers continued their argument before the Supreme Court that state law operated as a "prior restraint" on speech. They considered having to ask permission of a judge an unconstitutional restraint. They also argued "the State's interest in the anonymity of a juvenile offender is not sufficient" to justify the restriction. In contrast, Smith argued that the state's interest in keeping the juvenile's name confidential was sufficient to impose restrictions. The stigma the juvenile would endure for the remainder of his life would significantly hamper rehabilitation measures and greatly restrict future employment opportunities.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Co. - Significance, Juvenile Protection And State Regulation Of The Press, Impact, Further Readings