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Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Co.

Juvenile Protection And State Regulation Of The Press

The Supreme Court had previously addressed the specific question of protecting juvenile defendant identities and the larger question of state regulation of the press. The Court ruled in Oklahoma Publishing Co. v. District Court (1977) against a lower court injunction barring publication of the name and photograph of an accused juvenile defender in a murder case. Basis for the decision was that reporters and public had been allowed access to a court hearing on the case. The Court held that since the juvenile's identity was already "in the public domain" the lower court could not constitutionally restrict publication. A year later in Landmark Communications, Inc. v. Virginia (1978), the Court established standards for assessing when a state's interest outweighs constitutional press protections. In that case, the Court unanimously ruled in favor of the press for publishing information on confidential state judicial review commission proceedings about alleged judge misconduct. The Court held that the state could not criminally prosecute the press for publishing such information, despite its compelling interest in maintaining confidentiality of judicial review.

In assessing the appropriateness of a state's restriction on publication of truthful information by the press, the Court routinely considers a series of questions. First, the state is responsible for demonstrating compelling interest in suppressing publication of certain information. Is the restriction necessary to achieve a specific objective? Secondly, if the Court agrees with the state on compelling interest, it then assesses effectiveness of the restriction. Does it really serve the purpose for which it was intended? Lastly, if the intended purpose is served to at least some degree, is the restriction sufficiently narrow to restrict no more speech than absolutely necessary? To assess this last question, the Court must conceive of different restrictions that would accomplish the same objective while imposing less of a restriction on freedom of speech and press.

In applying these questions, the Court ruled in favor of the two newspapers in a 8-0 vote. Chief Justice Burger, writing for the Court, acknowledged that state law giving prior approval authority to juvenile court judges is "less oppressive" than a total ban. But the Court determined that assessing the constitutionality of West Virginia's state law was unnecessary because the need for withholding the juvenile's identity was not sufficiently demonstrated. The Court considered the law overly "burdensome" because Smith did not adequately demonstrate other alternatives existed to restrict publication of minors' names rather than resorting to criminal prosecution. Burger added that the West Virginia law was indeed unconstitutional by treating various forms of the press separately. The state law addresses only newspapers, not electronic media or other forms of publication.

Though writing in concurrence, Justice Rehnquist disagreed with the primary findings of the Court. He believed the claim for preserving the identity of the juvenile was sufficient to outweigh freedom of press concerns. He asserted the effect of such restrictions would be "minimal." Rehnquist wrote that the "hallmark of our juvenile justice system . . . [is that] youths . . . have been shielded from publicity." The main objective of the juvenile system is to rehabilitate and protect. He wrote, "Publication of the names of juvenile offenders may seriously impair the rehabilitative goals . . . The press is free to describe the details of the offense and inform the community of the proceedings against the juvenile." He did not see the general need for including names as well. The state law under question allowed a judge to grant permission where it may be warranted. Rehnquist agreed, though, that punishment after publication was likely the primary means for the state to enforce such restrictions. Though disagreeing with the other justices on these points, Rehnquist concluded the law was simply invalid due to its discrimination between electronic and print media.

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