The story of Jeremy Forrest, a teacher who ran away with one of his 15-year-old students — Megan Stammers — has been on the front pages of British newspapers for the past week. The news outlets have been monitoring the search and encouraging anyone with information to get in touch with law enforcement officers in Britain or abroad. All those, however, might not have been possible if one key provision of the 2011 Education Act had gone into effect merely one week earlier.
The provision in question would make it illegal to publicly disclose the name of a teacher accused by a student of sexual misconduct until an arrest warrant against that teacher has been filed. The original aim of the clause was to protect innocent teachers from harm to their reputation done by baseless and malicious accusations, but critics are now saying that it can inhibit criminal investigations, hunts for missing children and could stifle free speech.
Police chiefs, politicians and senior lawyers specializing in media, have criticised the law, with some warning that it could hamper missing person investigations, such as the one involving Megan.
Douglas Carswell, a senior Conservative back-bench MP, told The Daily Telegraph: “I don’t think this change in the law has been thought through.
“Blanket bans are rarely a good idea and we know about the recent case involving a teacher taking a student to France that sometimes it is right that there is publicity before a warrant is issued.”
Graham Stuart, the chairman of the Commons education select committee, admitted that the provision, which was introduced into the legislation by the current Secretary of Education Michael Gove, might have unforeseen consequences. One of those unforeseen consequences is playing out now in the Megan Stammers case. If the law had been in effect this week, the media would have been under a gag order forced to suppress Forrest’s name as the man involved in her disappearance until his arrest warrant was issued this Tuesday. This could have put the investigation back by nearly a week.
Anyone who wishes to force the banning order to be lifted, including the police, will have to make an application to a magistrate, creating what senior detectives believe could be a crucial time delay.
Sussex Police confirmed that the hunt for Mr Forrest and Megan had gone Europe-wide amid fears that the pair could have fled beyond France.
Papers have been detailing the alleged sighting of the pair, including the last official view of them boarding a ferry in Dover bound to Calais, France together last week. The media has also been carrying pleas from Forrest’s father asking his son to let everyone know that Megan was safe.