Newspaper won’t ID student who wrote letter about weapons in school

The Paducah Sun | WPSD
The Paducah (Ky.) Sun won’t tell the McCracken County sheriff’s office which student sent the paper a letter saying:

As a student at Reidland High School, I see fights dealt with promptly, tobacco abuse punished according to school regulations, and even profanity is dealt with promptly. But we have a student, someone who sits in class with us, who has brought weapons twice and most recently plotted a map of bomb and gun attack sites around the school area.

The paper says it turned over the letter but not the name of the author. As it published the letter Tuesday afternoon, it reiterated, “The Sun has protected the identity of this student and will continue to do so.” Earlier, the paper said:

The content of the note was shared with the McCracken County Sheriff’s Department, specifically Sheriff Jon Hayden and Capt. Matt Carter, after a reporter called the department. A paper copy of the letter also was provided to Carter, although the name of the author was not included.

The letter “does not contain any specific threats of violence, just the student’s observations,” the Sun writes in an unbylined piece.

Reidland High and Reidland Middle School were closed Tuesday because of this “serious threat,” reports WPSD, which is owned by the same company that owns the Sun.

Sheriff deputies requested the letter as well as the author’s name and phone number which was attached to the letter. Their request was denied, citing ethical obligations to protect the newspaper’s sources.

The Sheriff’s department met with the executive editor of the newspaper around 1:00 p.m. Monday afternoon, again asking for the letter and contact information. That request was also denied.

The commonwealth’s attorney office also contacted the paper, WPSD reports.

“If the letter came in unsolicited, they made no promises of confidentiality,” Poynter ethics faculty Kelly McBride said. “And you do have an obligation when you’re a journalist to follow the law. They could ask the sheriff’s department to get a subpeona, which would be really quick and easy, and then they would have a legal request to follow the law.”

Reached by phone, Sun Executive Editor Duke Conover said he couldn’t comment on whether the authorities had sought a subpoena or whether the letter had come in unsolicited, but he said the paper would publish a new piece this afternoon.

The Sun piece says the paper “would seek advice of counsel in Louisville” Tuesday morning.

In December 1997, Michael Carneal killed three students at Heath High School in nearby West Paducah, Ky.

Related: Graduate remembers 1997 shooting (The Atlantic) | “They’ll be reminded of this every time there’s another incident like this for the rest of their lives.” (WFPL) | “…if they want to tell you the story over and over again, just listen to them” (Lex18)

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • photo_journ

    This is totally ridiculous. There can be no implied or presumed cloak of confidentiality for an unsolicited letter. It doesn’t take a law degree to determine that – perhaps just a newspaper editor and / or executives with a few brains. On the flip-side, the cops should know that a subpoena would be quickly granted if requested.

    Sounds to me like The Paducah Sun is trying to milk this for as much as they can get. First they publish the letter — though it’s not clear if the authorities were informed of its existence prior to publication in the story above, or if the publication verified the authenticity of its contents.

    Then it writes an editorial supporting publishing the letter.

    A quick look at its (really crappy) website finds yet another story, but everything hidden behind a paywall.

    I’ve just seen another Poynter Posting “Paducah Sun alleges intimidation by authorities over school threat letter” which is what I started this reply pointing towards.

    This publication is attempting to grandstand on the issue, putting fear in the community and in my opinion, participating in behavior that undermines journalists who refuse to reveal sources of information where such guarantees have been given.

  • canardnoir

    Indict the principal for “obstruction” and such needed information will be a bit more available to law enforcement.

    Some educators must not understand that at least for a decade now – all of the rules have changed.