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Editorial: W.Va. Newspaper’s ongoing fight for the public’s right to know

From The Charleston Gazette-Mail:

Forty years ago Friday, a teenager at Hayes Junior High School in St. Albans shot and killed one of his classmates, Albert Smith. The following morning, The Charleston Gazette identified the shooter as 14-year-old Stuart Perrock. The Charleston Daily Mail, after not naming the teenager in its initial coverage, identified him later after his name became public.

In 1977, it was illegal in West Virginia for newspapers to identify juveniles charged with crimes, even murder. The Gazette’s publisher at the time, Ned Chilton, and Gazette editors knew this, and chose to identify him anyway. Among other reasons, they believed that St. Albans residents had a right to know who in their community was accused of a heinous act.

“When we decided to use Perrock’s name, we decided to break the law,” then-GazetteEditor Don Marsh wrote in a column that ran the same day as the story. Marsh described the law as “unwise and possibly illegal” and wrote. “If it comes to it, the Gazette is willing to do whatever is necessary to have that belief tested as fully as courts allow.”

It came to it, all right. The owners, publishers, editors and reporters from both newspapers were indicted. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices overwhelmingly decided that West Virginia’s law was unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. (Even Justice William Rehnquist, who, as an assistant attorney general, tried to prevent the Pentagon Papers from being published, agreed that the West Virginia law was bad because it singled out newspapers and didn’t address other media.)

When Chilton died in 1987, Marsh wrote again about the decision to publish the juvenile shooter’s name:

“[Chilton] walked by the city desk one day while we were looking at a picture of a juvenile who had murdered another kid. The question was whether we should run the picture and identify the arrested juvenile. (It was against the law to do so.),” Marsh wrote.

“‘Run it,’ Chilton said, almost casually, as he left to go home.

“We did. The decision cost the company $120,000 in legal fees,” Marsh wrote. “I am sure that had the publisher been an employee of Gannett, or had it been left to me to explain to the owners why I thought it wise to spend $120,000 of their money, the juvenile’s picture would not have appeared and the Gazette would not have aggressively pursued its rights in court then or later.”

The Gazette (and later the Gazette-Mail) has fought several similar battles over the years. Most recently, the newspaper intervened in a lawsuit against 10 of the nation’s largest drug distributors, in an attempt to unseal records that showed how many painkillers had been shipped to West Virginia.

The drug companies fought to keep those records secret for more than a year. Once the records were opened, they led to revelations that, over six years, drug companies had “showered the state with 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills.” Those are the words of Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his work on the subject.

But it’s become harder to fight those battles. Newspapers don’t make as much money as they used to, and don’t employ as many reporters. This newspaper has been aided by West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley and other lawyers who have helped the newspaper for free or at reduced rates, because they believe the work done here is important.

We’re proud of the role this newspaper has played in the fight for the public’s right to know. But the fight is ongoing. There’s more work to do.

Read more from the The Charleston Gazette-Mail

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