Media Company Drops Appeal In Drowning Victim Name Suit

Media Company Drops Appeal In Drowning Victim Name Suit
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OCEAN CITY — There was a measure of closure this week in a news media outlet’s suit against the Town of Ocean City and its police department over the release of the name of a teenage drowning victim when The Daily Times and its parent Gannett Company, Inc. officially dropped its appeal.

Last September, Gannett filed suit in Worcester County Circuit Court against the town and its police department seeking to force the town to release the name of a 17-year-old victim who drowned in the ocean off 92nd Street in June 2014. That incident marked the second time in less than two weeks a teen visiting the resort died in the ocean.

The Ocean City Police Department did not release the victim’s name, citing a request for privacy from the teen’s family. Most local media outlets did not pursue the issue any further, respecting the family’s wishes and deciding instead releasing the victim’s name would not serve any public purpose or contribute to the newsworthiness of the story.

Following the incident, Gannett Company Inc. submitted a Public Information Act (PIA) request to the OCPD seeking the victim’s name, but were denied by the department, which stood behind the wishes of the family not to release the information. Gannett then filed a second PIA request asking the resort to point out where in the law a special exception based on privacy was included.
Rebuffed again, Gannett last September filed suit in Worcester County Circuit Court against the Mayor and Council and the police department seeking to force the resort to release the victim’s name. By that point, the media outlet’s quest became less about the release of the individual drowning victim’s name and more about the town’s ability to pick and choose what information it chooses to release or withhold.

It’s important to note as the case wore on, it became less about the name of the victim and more about the media and public access to information. In February, Worcester County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Groton entered an opinion on the town’s motion for summary judgment, essentially ruling the town’s police department had met their burden under the Maryland Public Information Act.

“The request seeks no information about a governmental agency, and it would provide no further understanding or insight into the conduct and procedures of the investigation,” the opinion reads. “The request only seeks the name of the decedent, a private citizen. The request is an unwarranted invasion of privacy under the definition established.”

Despite the unfavorable outcome in Worcester County Circuit Court, Gannett would not let the issue die and filed an appeal of Groton’s decision in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. This week, however, it was confirmed the media company had dropped the appeal.

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said this week the dropped appeal brings a measure of closure for the town and its police department as well as the victim’s family.

“We are pleased to move forward knowing that we acted in the best interest of the victim and the victim’s family,” he said this week. “We take very seriously the ability to keep our residents and visitors safe and protect their privacy within our best ability when requested. This was a very tragic incident, but I hope that we can begin to move forward and allow the family privacy to continue healing from their loss.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.