The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Hart Noecker was apparently a relatively prominent social and political activist in Portland, but in early 2015 he was accused of sexual misconduct by several people from that community; for different accounts of the nature of the misconduct, see here and here.
There was apparently no prosecution, but Noecker was publicly condemned within the community, and apparently basically drummed out of that community. (He ended up moving away from Portland, back to where he grew up.) The story was covered in a Willamette Week cover story by Aaron Mesh, a post at the prominent feminist site Jezebel by Cecilia D'Anastasio, and a post at BikePortland.org by Jonathan Maus. In 2016, though, Noecker sued the source of the most serious accusation—Byrd Jasper—and got a default judgment for $49,200; Jasper did not appear to contest the case. (The default judgment order stated that, "having heard the evidence submitted during the prima facie hearing [by Noecker], the court [has found] that defendant defamed plaintiff by making false allegations of sexual assault.") And then, starting several weeks ago, someone has been asking Google to remove the three stories cited above from its archives, so that Google users wouldn't find such stories.
I corresponded with Noecker, who told me, "I did not request de-indexing of that content, this was done without my knowledge and was in error." But when I asked him for the names of people who might have submitted the request, he didn't get back to me about that. The requests were submitted under his name and also under the name Vanessa McGill; I tried to reach a lawyer I found with that name, but haven't heard back from her.
Google has not removed those stories, and I suspect that it likely won't. Though it sometimes does deindex website posts that have been found to be defamatory, in my experience it has generally not done so simply when a newspaper story—or a similar publication—quotes someone who has been found guilty of libel as to such statements. (I'll blog soon about several other cases in which there have been such deindexing attempts, though based on injunctions issued after a stipulated judgment, rather than a damages award issued after a default judgment, as here.)
Still, I thought it was worth flagging this incident as an example of what some people are trying to do behind the scenes. Of course, people have long tried to approach news sites, asking them to take down or edit stories on the strength of a judgment that might shed light on the accuracy of allegations reported in the story. In that situation, the authors would consider how reliable the initial accusations were, and how reliable the follow-up information—whether a default judgment, a recantation, a jury verdict or something else—might be. But in this instance, it appears that Noecker didn't give the authors that opportunity; the authors of the Willamette Week and BikePortland stories told me that Noecker hadn't asked them to take down the stories based on the default judgment. (The author of the Jezebel story declined to talk to me about this, saying that she doesn't "tend to accept interview requests.")