Should the names of acquitted Air Force airmen be released to the public? That's the question at the center of a new debate over privacy and military law protocol among officials and legal experts. As Air Force Times reports, the issue is a nuanced one.
Currently, the names of all accused airmen appear on the Judge Advocate General's website. If these men and women are convicted, their names are re-posted on the site for 90 days with the guilty verdict. If they are found innocent, their case result is posted, but their names are omitted. Legal experts are split on this practice, some saying that privacy is an important factor in these matters, while others insisting that the omission hurts an accused airmen's reputation.
"THE WHOLE PROCESS IS PUBLIC RECORD"
Sally Stenton is a Rutgers Law School professor who worked in an Air Force JAG office for more than two decades. As she revealed to Air Force Times, she does not understand the practice of withholding the names acquitted airmen.
"If it’s already been published that they were charged, I don’t understand the JAG Corp’s position of not releasing a name that’s already public record," she told the paper. "The whole process is public record including the acquittal."
She also believes that the omission of the acquitted names actually does harm to the airmen's reputation. "In not publishing the names of those that are acquitted, I think they are actually doing harm to that person," she remarked. "All people know is that airman so and so was charged with a heinous offense, and then that’s all they ever hear about it."
"ABUSED IN PUBLIC"
Other experts see things differently. Civilian attorney Philip Cave spoke to Air Force Times about the persistence of stigma-- especially in our digital age. "My personal view is the less said the better," he said. "The less there is on the Google, the less likely the person’s name is to come up … He’s gone through a bunch. I don’t see why he should have to be abused in public anymore."
The Air Force Times put that principle to the test and looked into the case of one Air Force officer accused to sexual assault while stationed at Mildenhall Air Base in the United Kingdom. He was acquitted of all charges, but—because his name was not released at the time of that decision—the first Google result when searching his name is a news item reporting on his suspected crimes.
THE OFFICIAL DECISION
Director of Air Force Judiciary Col. Chuck Killion spoke with Air Force Times on the Air Force's decision to omit the names of acquitted from the JAG website. "Before the decision was made by the Judge Advocate General, we had input from the senior trial lawyers in our community who unanimously agreed that the best policy for a universally applied approach was to eliminate the name of the [acquitted] airmen," he revealed. Policy makers then concluded that an airman's right to privacy is restored upon acquittal, which is why the names are left out of the public PDF on the JAG website.
Killion did admit, however, that it is known that the policy isn't perfect and not preferable to all. "While there might be airmen who feel strongly that they might want to get out there and vindicate their name, there are some that feel the opposite," he told Air Force Times. "We are trying to do what we can to not preserve an electronic record link to someone’s name of what is normally the most stressful time of someone’s life."
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