The Message

What's in a Name?

On October 7, separate stories on the same topic that ran in the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News prompted plenty of head-scratching, but for very different reasons.

A day earlier, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch had decreed that the woman accusing Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant of rape must use her real name in the civil action she's registered against him. In its front-page article on the ruling, the Post neglected to mention that the Rocky had filed a motion with Matsch asking that he strip away the woman's Jane Doe status -- an omission that shortchanged readers for the most petty of reasons. (The Post did mention the Rocky the next day, in a less prominent piece that ran sans byline.) Meanwhile, the Rocky reported that editor/publisher/president John Temple has decided not to print the woman's name "for now," even though Matsch agreed with arguments made by the paper and by Bryant's defense team, which submitted a similar motion.

The "for now" part of this passage is key. Temple states that while the Rocky hasn't printed the woman's name to date, he will "continue to talk to people here and see what the right thing to do is at the right time." Even so, he says he won't be swayed by the likely avalanche of media organizations that will begin naming the woman once Matsch's order becomes official. (That will happen on October 20 unless the plaintiffs appeal or the parties reach a settlement, as has long been anticipated.) "It's not a concern for me to be out of step with other news organizations," Temple maintains.

So if printing the name isn't that big a deal to the Rocky, why rev up the company lawyers in the first place? "It's really a legal issue we're dealing with here," Temple says. "I think such high-profile cases can tend to set the tone for how people think the courts should operate. I don't want to see anything happen that encourages the idea of using the courts anonymously, and that's what's occurring."

True enough -- but the messiness of the Bryant matter makes it an unlikely test case for determining whether the names of alleged rape victims should wind up in the mainstream press. Ever since July 2003, when the woman told Eagle County authorities that Bryant had forced her to have sex at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera, pro-Kobe factions have zealously circulated her appellation over the Internet. Googling the phrase "Kobe Bryant accuser" after Matsch's ruling turned up a document containing her handle on just the fifth hit. In addition, entire websites are devoted to dissing her by name. Among the most extensive of these Internet destinations is www.fratpack.com, which brims with photos and articles written from the viewpoint of Laie Weatherwax, who's described as an "ex-college friend." In a piece that also appeared in the Globe, a supermarket tabloid, Weatherwax claims that the woman is a celebrity obsessive who once schemed to score with Eminem during his late 2002 visit to Vail.

Given the prevalence of such poison, the discussion about formally identifying her might seem purely academic. Nevertheless, major newspapers and broadcast stations across the country have resisted the urge to do so even though the criminal charges against Bryant were dropped last month, leaving only a civil complaint.

If any local paper would seem likely to swim against the tide, it's the Boulder Daily Camera, whose policy during recent years has called for the publication of all names in civil complaints. This philosophy sparked ire in 2002 when the Camera, under former editor Colleen Conant, named Lisa Simpson, one of three young women currently suing the University of Colorado at Boulder over a December 2001 party attended by football recruits at which she says she was raped. Simpson subsequently chose to publicly ID herself, but earlier this year, she told the Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee that seeing her name for the first time in the Camera "was like being raped all over again."

The woman in the Bryant case hasn't received such treatment because Sue Deans, who's edited the Camera since September 2003, has a less cut-and-dried approach to civil cases than her predecessor. "To me, a policy is something that may need to be amended, depending on the circumstances," Deans allows. She, like Temple, will hold a newsroom discussion before determining whether to identify Bryant's accuser.

As for the Rocky, it's previously played the name game in ultra-conservative fashion. In February the paper published the moniker of a woman who joined Lisa Simpson's suit against CU. A few days later, however, the Rocky reversed course following complaints from the woman's lawyer. An item explaining the flip-flop declared, "The News does not print the names of women who say they are sexual-assault victims without their permission."

The Rocky's entreaty to Matsch seemingly contradicted this statement, since the woman issuing allegations against Bryant has repeatedly fought to keep her name under wraps, but Temple doesn't see it that way. The CU conflict differs from the Bryant case because, he says, "Lisa Simpson and these women are making an allegation about the conduct of a public institution, so there's a larger societal question at stake. In a sense, the university is on trial, not a single individual."

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