The Falls Church City Council decided last week to stop printing official city notices in the Northern Virginia Sun because of the newspaper's announced policy of printing the names of rape victims.
Although the move apparently will have a minimal effect on paper's advertising revenues since the city advertising bill with the Sun is only $800 to $1,000 annually, supporters of the ban say it might spur other jurisdictions to stop advertising in the Sun until the newspaper policy is changed.
In December, Sun publisher Herman J. Obermayer announced he would publish names of rape victims when they testify in court. However, he modified the policy in February to exclude the names of juveniles, mentally retarded victims or victims in cases where the defendant pleads guilty. So far, all wvictims in rape cases within the suburban Virginia newspaper's coverage area have fallen into these categories, and the Sun has not yet printed a victim's name.
The council action was "more of a statement" than an actual threat to the newspaper because the city advertising budget is low and Falls Church spreads its advertising among several area newspapers, according to council member Ed Strait, who sponsored the measure. Strait said Falls Church apparently is the first Northern Virginia jurisdiction to take any official action on the policy, although two Fairfax County agencies held a public hearing on the matter.
"It seemed to me that it was not in good government to use (Obermayer's) services as long as he pursues that policy," Strait said. "If he pursues that policy he is abetting criminality because it is a deterrent to reporting rapes."
The council invited Obermayer to its meeting June 12 to explain his policy, but he refused to come. In a letter to the council he wrote, "My being called before a governmental body for exercising my First Amendment rights portends the most objectionable form of censorship, governmental interference and attempt to control the press. This is clearly not an issue for city government." Obermayer later refused to comment on the council action.
"I recognize the rights of a newspaper to do this . . . but it's a matter of restraint," Strait said. "It's a policy that just isn't good for the public."
Betty Ardus, of the Falls Church Commission for Women, which advocated the advertising ban, said the Sun policy will deter women from reporting rapes because they are afraid of the publicity.
"The trauma of victims of sexual assault is different than any other type of assault . . . anything that adds to that trauma is inhumane," she said. "She (the victim) does not need the curiosity . . . that would result from a newspaper account."
Obermayer has said he decided to print the names of women who claim they have been raped because the "accused only publicly faces his accuser in the press. Such confrontation is a fundamental part of our system." The women should be identified (as is done with other victims of violent crimes) to guarantee that the defendant is not accused with inaccurate testimony or the woman does not commit perjury, he has said.