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On transparency and the value of a name

There is a lot I find wrong about Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford’s request for a Luddite-themed, on-the-record news conference Tuesday. There is how it contradicts the Hogan administration’s promise of transparency, as my colleague Bryan P. Sears noted.

But there is also the simple fact that, in today’s media world, if something is on the record, part of the public record or simply public information, it will be reported on, rightly or wrongly. It’s why Ken Holt was in the news earlier this month. It’s why “doxxing” is so controversial.

It’s also why we finally know who Brendon E. Frederick is, no thanks to the misguided town officials of my beloved Ocean City, Maryland.

The 17-year-old from Parkville drowned in the ocean last year during Senior Week. The dead are usually identified, except in this case, town officials said they did not have to reveal the teen’s name under Maryland’s public records law. They also argued they were honoring a request of Frederick’s family for privacy.

The Daily Times and Worcester County Times sued Ocean City for the teen’s name. A Worcester County judge sided with the town in January, calling the newspapers’ request an “unwarranted invasion of privacy.”

Gannett, the parent company of the newspapers, was readying for its appeal when a researcher preparing an amicus brief “reasoned that if the swimmer’s name was available through other public channels, it would undercut the town’s privacy argument,” according to The Daily Times.

Sure enough, Frederick left a trail on social media, and a Facebook group noted his death last year.

Gannett has dropped the court case, and Jeremy Cox of The Daily Times wrote earlier this month about Frederick, a “young man on the cusp of transforming potential into reality.”

Even The Daily Times acknowledges Frederick’s name is not “critically important” to its Eastern Shore readers but starts us down the slippery slope. What if next time the drowning victim was the mayor’s wife or a prominent business owner’s grandson?

The Frederick case “sets a precedent that could be used to justify withholding other, more embarrassing or damaging information from the community,” the newspaper wrote in an editorial. “We don’t want to go there.”

“The First Amendment protects the right of journalists — including bloggers — to obtain and publish information that some would prefer never see the light of day,” the editorial added. “It’s what keeps the news media free to do its job as a public watchdog.”

So, why is Brendon Frederick’s name important? To quote a certain lieutenant governor from a certain meeting where no recording devices were allowed, “I call that a clown question, bro.”

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