Public Value or Cheap Sensationalism?

There was a time in my life when I might have felt differently about a court battle that is currently being waged in Wisconsin. As a newspaper reporter, I talked alot about “the public’s right to know.”

But now that I am the father of a son with a mental disorder — well, I’m a bit more skeptical.

Bryan Stanley murdered a custodian, a lay minister and a priest at the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Onalaska, Wisconsin in February 1985.  At the time, he was twenty-nine years old and mentally ill. He believed he was a prophet sent by God to cleanse the church after a priest allowed girls to read Scriptures during Mass.

Found not guilty —“by reason of mental disease” — Stanley was sent to the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison in October 1985.  Some fifteen years later in March 2009, doctors at the institute decided Stanley could be safely discharged. After thoroughly reviewing his case, La Crosse County Circuit Judge Ramona Gonzalez agreed. She approved his release but ordered specific monitoring restrictions.

At the request of Stanley’s attorney, the judge decided to keep Stanley’s release plan confidential, ruling that it was a medical “treatment” document and, as such, was protected by privacy protections in the state’s Mental Health Act. The street address of where Stanley was released and the conditions that he must meet were sealed by the court.

Ever since Stanley was freed,  The LaCrosse Tribune has been fighting to unseal his records. The newspaper claims it is in the “public’s interest” to know Stanley’s current address and to review what restrictions the state has imposed on him.   Attorneys for the paper argue that Stanley’s release plan “is a judicial document — not a mental health treatment record.”  They claim it should be made public.

The matter is headed to Wisconsin’s Supreme Court.  Chris Hardie, the newspaper’s executive editor, was quoted in his own paper, saying “Our case raises significant public issues.”


Is this dispute about the public’s right to know or about cheap sensationalism, prejudice and revenge? What public value is there in revealing where Stanley has been discharged?

I’ve seen what is happening in LaCrosse in other cities. In April 1984, The Miami Herald published a story about a prison release program that targeted ex-offenders who’d committed crimes while suffering from severe mental disorders. Under the headline, “Halfway House for Insane Draws Praise, Protest,” a reporter described how two murderers with mental illnesses were being groomed to re-enter the community. One had killed his father and cooked his body parts. But both had been deemed eligible for released after years of treatment.

When the story was published, the halfway house’s neighbors were aghast.  An emergency community meeting was held and the program’s landlord was pressured into evicting the half-way house. No one in Miami would rent the program space and when its leaders tried to buy a dilapidated motel, angry protestors stormed City Hall stopping the sale. Eventually, the treatment program had to move sixty miles north of Miami onto a military base. Only after Janet Reno, who was then Florida’s state attorney general, found a piece of undeveloped county land was the program permitted to sneak back into town.  Today, there are no identifying signs on the halfway house’s building and it avoids all publicity.

Most persons, who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, can recover and can control the symptoms of their illnesses if they receive effective treatment. Does the LaCrosse  newspaper suspect the psychiatrists, who deemed Stanley well-enough to be discharged, and the judge, who imposed restrictions on his freedom, to be grossly incompetent? Does the newspaper have evidence that freeing Stanley is putting people at risk?  Does the newspaper believe people who become mentally ill and commit a crime should never be freed, even after they receive treatment and are carefully watched by the court?

Or is the newspaper seeking this information, under the masquerade of First Amendment rights, because it wants to engage in fear-mongering by shining a spotlight on someone who under our current laws has every right to return to society and live among us?

From my vantage point, the latter explanation seems to fit.



About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.