Letter to the editor

Dear Editor,

Through social media, I have become aware of a longtime issue that may affect the continuation of The Advocate at my former stomping grounds at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. The newspaper’s right and obligation to publish student drunk driving charges versus those who don’t want the information to appear in print is an issue that seems to come up every few years. As a longtime, but now former, journalist, I can tell you by college experience that this is an old ploy (threatening to close the newspaper) that has the same answers as it did in the late ‘70s when I started.

As a former local reporter and eventual editor of my adopted hometown newspaper in Easton, Md., at least several times a week, a story or potential story brought some sort of phone call or visit from a reader or a family member who didn’t like something published in the newspaper. They called for the reporter’s, mine or the publisher’s head or worse.

Over the years, I took plenty of calls asking to keep a drug arrest, a DUI/DWI charge, an assault or a theft charge out of the newspaper. The reasons were myriad … loss of a job, friends and family will know, wife will leave me, won’t get into college, cops got it wrong, etc., etc., etc. (Shouldn’t that have been considered before the crime or the act of bad judgment was committed?) While all were compelling personal circumstances, a newspaper’s job is to report what’s on the public record fairly and consistently. That’s what we tried to do each day based on editorial policy guidelines. It was not up to us to judge the situation — that’s for judges, juries and courts. And if the person arrested and charged was found not guilty or the charges were dropped, we had an equal responsibility to report that, too.

I remember vividly the Saturday afternoon a father called me begging to keep out his son’s first drug arrest, explaining that it was a youthful indiscretion, that his son was a good kid. The father was fearful the story was going to be front page news. It wasn’t and the one-paragraph report ran in our usual round-up of crime items on an inside page. A few years later, as the young man’s crimes and violent sprees escalated to three counties and numerous burglaries, thefts, drug and alcohol instances, assaults and even the mutilation of an animal, his stories and trail of crimes and multiple court cases did make the front page as did his sentencings. Do I fault his father for loving his son and trying to protect him? No. But clearly, this young man’s choices — poor ones that changed his life and altered his family forever — had consequences in our greater community. The public had a right to know what this young man was up to.

Now, I’m not saying that the Advocate’s publication of alcohol-related arrests will lead to this kind of fate for students at Pitt-Johnstown; it merely serves as an example of the duty a newspaper has in reporting the facts, fairly and consistently. If a student faces a one-time drug or alcohol charge, that’s a life lesson learned, including the publication of the charges. If a student repeatedly finds himself, or herself facing these kinds of charges on a regular basis, they need legal and medical help and to realize that many consequences are not protected by caring parents or teachers or an educational system. Perhaps, if their indiscretions are published, it will embarrass those transgressors into reforming instead of continuing drunk driving until they harm themselves or kill an innocent person in another car.

Pretending that drug and alcohol arrests aren’t happening on campus serves no good purpose for students, for parents or in the school’s operation. Closing The Advocate will not silence the record. Those facts will stand for any and all to discover, to share and to read … especially in a digital world. To believe that employers won’t go to those lengths is naïve; they will and they do.

A university, of all places, should be a defender of freedom of the press, not a silencer.

Barbara Sauers

University of Pittsburgh graduate, Class of 1981

Former Executive Editor of The Star Democrat

Easton, Md.