Last week, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff conducted a press conference to unveil the redesign of his office Web site, attorneygeneral.utah.gov. It featured video of a man being arrested by the Utah Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. It also included video of interviews of police who worked on the case.
Shurtleff has the right to free expression. But exercising free speech has consequences. We'd argue that the consequences are more significant for the state's elected attorney general. As an officer of the court, Shurtleff should help to ensure that the man who appears on his Web site video, whom Shurtleff says is innocent until proven guilty, receives a fair trial.
Shurtleff faces re-election in the fall. Although this particular Web site is a government site, its apparent intent is to demonstrate that Shurtleff, his assistant attorneys general and investigators are vigilant in enforcing Internet crimes against children. The public should be kept informed how law enforcement and prosecutors address this issue. However, it is possible to achieve the same ends by featuring a defendant after he or she has been convicted. This particular suspect had not been formally charged when the Web site was unveiled.
Newspapers, television stations and news Web sites often publish photos and provide other coverage of criminal suspects and defendants before they are formally charged or before or during their criminal trials. However, news organizations serve a different role in society. They are not government agencies. Shurtleff's job is to successfully prosecute law breakers. But he must also ensure that defendants' rights are protected, the integrity of the judicial system is upheld and convictions are not overturned.
The ACLU has raised concerns about the appropriateness of the attorney general's Web site. These concerns are well placed. Shurtleff's role is different than that of a county sheriff conducting a perp walk or taking a mug shot. He is not only the state's top law enforcer, he has taken an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution as an office holder and as a member of the Utah State Bar. As such, he should be held to a higher standard.