Victim in United Flight Debacle Gets Smear Treatment

How dredging up his irrelevant criminal background will be used to justify censorship.


Gordon Tipeme /

You would think that an elderly doctor (69 years old!) being filmed getting dragged by police off a United airplane in order to make room for the airline employees would be immune to the "He's no angel" defense of government violence.

You would be wrong, though, and underestimating the willingness of media outlets to publish anything that has the potential to get them attention, even negative attention. Everybody's got a past that can be used against them.

It has become a common practice that when a citizen has a very public, highly publicized encounter with law enforcement, his or her criminal background very quickly ends up in the hands of local media outlets.

Sometimes it's relevant. If a criminal suspect gets wounded or killed in a confrontation with police, a history of convictions for violent crimes helps put it in context. It doesn't inherently mean the police's behavior was justified in any particular instance, but it is important information. And the public should know.

But sometimes it's clearly an attempt to make the person subjected to police aggression look guilty in the eyes of the public and shield the authorities from criticism for bad behavior.

All of that is to say the Courier-Journal in Kentucky got its hands on the criminal and licensing background of the guy that got forcibly yanked (and injured) by Chicago police off that United flight, and it turns out this David Dao fellow did some bad things, more than a decade ago. But they've decided to dredge it up anyway:

Dao, who went to medical school in Vietnam in the 1970s before moving to the U.S., was working as a pulmonologist in Elizabethtown when he was arrested in 2003 and eventually convicted of drug-related offenses after an undercover investigation, according to documents filed with the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure last June. The documents allege that he was involved in fraudulent prescriptions for controlled substances and was sexually involved with a patient who used to work for his practice and assisted police in building a case against him.

Dao was convicted of multiple felony counts of obtaining drugs by fraud or deceit in November 2004 and was placed on five years of supervised probation in January 2005. He surrendered his medical license the next month.

The Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure permitted Dao to resume practicing medicine in 2015 under certain conditions.

None of this provides any contextual information useful to understanding Dao's refusal to comply with United. It's a smear. There's no reason to believe any of it is not true, but it is not journalism that provides any actually useful context about Dao. They can't even say he was misleading the airline when he said he had patients to treat as an explanation for his refusal to disembark "voluntarily."

The newspaper is being absolutely blasted on both their website and on Twitter for running with this story. There are maybe one or two people who defend the publishing and the idea that Dao should have complied and think his criminal background is in any way related. A poll asking whether the Courier-Journal should have published this story would likely lead to a very lopsided result telling the paper they made the wrong choice here.

I did not see anywhere in these tweets or comments anybody saying the newspaper shouldn't be allowed to have published this information, which is good. This is a perfect example of using "more speech" to counter "bad speech." The media outlet arguably made a poor choice in what information to publish and is being publicly criticized for doing so. It would not surprise me if the editor there was being inundated with angry phone calls.

Nevertheless, though there is no call for formal government censorship, it's worth looking at this story about Dao's checkered past and thinking about the development of "right to be forgotten" orders and regulations in the European Union. This is a "right" used to force censorship of the internet, requiring search engines like Google to remove links to past reports, news stories, and information that is often factually true but is embarrassing and no longer relevant or that allegedly violates the privacy of the citizens involved. This information is often related to past criminal activity and convictions.

The concepts underlying the "right to be forgotten" push are rightly a concern for supporters of free speech because not only does it lead to censorship, it also puts government authorities in the position of deciding what is and isn't relevant to remain in the public eye. The potential consequence is that powerful political figures and wealthy, connected individual are able to abuse the concept to conceal relevant information about their own misconduct.

There are plenty of examples of how governments in the United States already conceal misconduct by authorities and officials. Reportedly the officers responsible for forcibly dragging Dao off the flight are on leave and being investigated. If any actual discipline comes their way (and that's a really big "if"—this conduct is probably considered justified by the government, which is itself a problem) we'll probably never know about it. Often police misconduct is protected from public disclosure by law, despite the public interest and the right to know when the people who are supposed to protect us are misbehaving.

When people try to sell the "right to be forgotten" to the American people, it's not going to be cases of police misconduct and political corruption arrests they'll be using. It will be cases like Dao's here. The decision by the Courier-Journal to publish information about Dao's past that was completely irrelevant to his behavior will be used to convince people that such information should not be kept public.

When media outlets make such poor publication choices, it increases the challenge of attempting to defend a broad definition of free speech and a free press. While it's important to protect the Courier-Journal's right to have made such a bad decision, it's also very worthwhile to push back against this poorly-thought-out choice because this is the kind of behavior that causes some people to decide that maybe some government censorship isn't such a bad thing.

What should people take from this Dao hit piece? Maybe think twice and read closely the next time a suspect's criminal background is dredged up in future news reports involving confrontations with authorities.