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LUTHER Campbell of 2 Live Crew was busted in Florida. A Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit was shut down in Ohio. Flag-burners were arrested in Texas. But while free expression is under attack across the nation, three laudable judicial and legislative decisions close to home indicate that the First Amendment is alive and well and living in Massachusetts.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit ruled that lists of jurors in criminal cases must be released to the public unless doing so would endanger the jurors' lives. The decision puts to rest, at least for now, a long simmering dispute between judges and journalists over access to the names of jurors who decide criminal cases.
Jurors are ordinary citizens, but when they decide a case they take on an extraordinary responsibility. The American legal system gives juries a great deal of power and rightfully so. But juries, like judges and courts martial, make mistakes. They can be intimidated, misunderstand the law or act out of prejudice rather than on the facts introduced in court.
Releasing a the names of jurors after a trial is over allows members of the press to contact those vested with this enormous power to get a first-hand account of the jury's impressions and deliberations. Airing this sort of information will help the public at large reach a verdict on whether the courts have done justice in any particular case.
ON THURSDAY, the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill reforming the state's criminal records laws. In the past it has been nearly impossible to find out why an inmate was being confined or whether he or she had a history of violent acts. The law was so tight that correction officials often could not tell the public what an escaped criminal had been imprisoned for in the first place. Under the new rules, criminal records are public for a few years after a person leaves prison--the exact time depends on the severity of the crime committed.
The new rules balance the right of the public to know about threats to its safety and the right of a rehabilitated criminal to pursue a new life without having to constantly explain unfortunate events from the past. We urge Gov. Michael S. Dukakis to sign this sensible reform as he has promised to do.
AND on Friday, a Massachusetts Appeals Court judge lifted a gag order that another judge had imposed on a woman suing the Pi Eta Speakers Association over an alleged rape there two years ago. It takes a great deal of courage for a woman who has been raped to go public with her story and there is no reason to silence someone because they choose to exercise there legal right to go to court. Ordering the woman and her attorney to refrain from discussing the case violates their rights and those of the press and the public, who depend on their perspectives to gain a complete understanding of the court proceedings.
Though advance publicity may make it a bit more difficult for the court to find an impartial jury to hear the case, press reports are hardly "polluting the minds" of those who read them, as defense attorneys in the case have maintained. Press coverage allows the public to judge the severity of the problem of sexual violence among college students and gives those who might commit such violence notice their actions could have grave consequences.
We can only hope that as Massachusetts goes, so goes the nation.
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