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On Ocean City and public disclosure

It seemed, at least to me, a particularly dangerous summer to be in the waters off Ocean City. Five people drowned in the ocean and there seemed to be more rescues and more warnings from lifeguards to swimmers than usual.

One of the people who died was a 17-year-old from Parkville. The teenager’s name has never been released by Ocean City officials, however, which prompted The Daily Times and Worcester County Times to file suit against the town last month to force the disclosure. A reporter requested the police report and information about the case days after the drowning in June, according to The Daily Times. The police denied the request, saying the teen’s family had requested the name not be released, according to The Daily Times. The back-and-forth continued:

On July 9, the newspapers asked the police department to cite the specific exemption in the law under which it was withholding records. The same day, the department responded, claiming it was withholding the information under the law’s discretionary exemption for records of investigations.

The suit alleges the investigation into the Parkville teen’s drowning was already closed at the time of the department’s second denial.

Michael Kilian, executive editor of both newspapers, wrote last week that while his heart goes out to the victim’s family, “it is neither legal nor fair for Ocean City officials to withhold one name, no matter how good their intentions, and release so many others as the law requires.”

The Sun, in an editorial, acknowledged media outlets readily withhold information from stories; many newspapers, The Daily Record included, do not identify victims of sexual assault. But as editorial board pointed out, the press has a right to not use the information, while the government has to prove why it should be allowed to withhold the information.

“Perhaps the case would fare better in the court of public opinion if this were about uncovering the name of a murderer or child molester, but those circumstances would also be irrelevant,” the editorial board wrote. “This is about the public’s right to know what its government is doing regardless of whether it involves a death in the surf or a fender bender on the highway.”

Much like The Sun could only say “Amen” to Kilian’s column, I can only say “Amen” to both pieces.

About Danny Jacobs

Danny Jacobs is the legal editor at The Daily Record. He previously covered trial courts at the state and local levels and served as web editor.