By Randy Evans, Executive Director, Iowa Freedom of Information Council
On the morning of Aug. 31, shortly after 8:30, a 12-year-old boy pulled out a gun in his seventh-grade classroom in Eldridge, a community just north of Davenport.
In an instant, he directed his classmates to get on the floor and then pointed the gun at his teacher’s face and squeezed the trigger.
Blessedly, he did not take the gun’s safety off. The gun did not fire. But there was a bullet in the firing chamber and 11 others were in the gun’s ammunition magazine.
The quick-thinking teacher got the gun away before the boy could try again. Her actions may have averted another mass school shooting.
The teacher and another school employee held the boy until police officers arrived within minutes. They took the boy into custody and charged him with attempted murder.
The case poises an array of questions — about the boy’s motives, about how he obtained the gun, about the crime itself, about the ethical decisions journalists made, and about a decision last week by a Davenport judge.
That judge’s ruling gets to one of the fundamental concepts on which the United States of America was founded. More about that after a bit more background.
Word spread quickly through Eldridge, a community of 6,200 people, about the near tragedy at North Scott Junior High School. Shaken students told their parents, who told their friends who told others.
Not surprisingly, the boy’s name was mentioned on social media postings and in people’s conversations. After church services two days later, people were still focused on the boy and his actions as much as they were on the morning sermon.
At a time when journalists in our nation are under a microscope and their coverage and comments are often cussed and discussed, the two largest newspapers in Scott County, the North Scott Press and the Quad City Times, each arrived at the same decision on the question of whether to identify the boy. They chose not to name him.
Television stations in the Quad Cities made the same decision, although KWQC did include his name in a website story before quickly removing his identity.
The First Amendment to the Constitution really is quite simple. The media is free to decide independent from government interference what to publish or broadcast and what not to publish or broadcast. Government cannot dictate those decisions.
That’s why the decision last month by Scott County District Judge Patrick McElyea is so troubling.
He issued an order on Wednesday that said the court files and court hearings in the boy’s case will remain open to the public. The order itself includes the name of the 12-year-old at the top of the first page.
But the judge went too far when he ordered the media to not publish or broadcast the boy’s name or the names of any juveniles who testify during the trial. The judge’s order, in effect, prevents the media — but not Joe Public Citizen — from sharing certain facts that are contained in public court records or that are spoken during public court proceedings.
An earlier order in the case allows journalists to use video and still cameras in the courtroom under Iowa’s 40-year-old program of expanded news coverage of court proceedings.
Judge McElyea is well within his authority under court rules to restrict those photographers and videographers from filming the defendant or those juvenile witnesses inside the courtroom.
But the judge does not have authority under the First Amendment to restrict newspapers, television stations or bloggers from using photos of the defendant that are obtained away from the courtroom — from school yearbooks or the boy’s classmates.
I am not advocating the media should use the boy’s name or photo. Those decisions need to be made by the staff and management of individual news outlets. In the United States, those decisions should not be made by a judge any more than the president should decide what can be published from his press conferences.
The Iowa Legislature decided in 2016 that most juvenile court proceedings and records that had been open to the public for many years would now be closed to protect the privacy of young offenders.
But because of the seriousness of the charges, the Eldridge boy’s case was moved out of juvenile court and into adult court at the request of the Scott County attorney’s office. A different judge approved that request.
The boy is being prosecuted as a youthful offender. That means if he is found guilty, he would remain under the supervision of juvenile court officials until he turns 18. At that time, a judge would decide whether to release him or send him to adult prison.
I certainly understand why the boy’s attorneys want to minimize public attention on him and the allegations against him. But I also understand why many in the public want to know the boy’s identity so they can keep tabs on him and his behavior in the future.
What I have trouble understanding is why a judge thinks he can disregard the First Amendment and its protections for the free press and block newspapers and broadcasters from disseminating true and accurate information about a case with such intense public interest.