The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Here's a question to our readers who are reporters or editors. Let's say that someone e-mails you with something like the following message:
I was convicted [X] years ago of a crime [e.g., theft, DUI, or even teacher-student sex with a 17-year-old student]. I have served my time in prison or on probation, and I've now gotten an order expunging my record [or even removing me from a sex offender registry]. But when people Google my name, they see the article in your newspaper about my arrest or conviction. I believe that I've paid enough for my crime, and the state seems to think so, too, as the expungement reflects. Would you please remove the article from your archives?
The expungement order is attached, and you verify that it's authentic. It doesn't legally bind you—expungement orders are generally orders to government officials requiring them to remove court files from public access (or even outright destroy them), not orders requiring private organizations to take down material. But it still shows that the legal system views the person as in some measure rehabilitated.
Do you remove the article? If the answer is "maybe," how would you make that decision?
If you want a concrete scenario, here's are two that I came across:
1. In 2009, M.S.—a 31-year-old female physical education teacher and former coach—was arrested for misdemeanor "annoying or molesting" a 17-year-old female student. The local newspaper reports on this, saying that the allegations are that the teacher and student had touched and kissed, but not that they had sex. The teacher is eventually convicted of misdemeanor attempted sexual penetration of a minor. In 2017, she has her record expunged, because she had been off probation for five years and hasn't gotten into legal trouble since then.
Would you remove the newspaper article? Might you keep it up but redact her name?
2. In 2004, there was a news story about the federal government seizing money that a woman apparently earned as a high-priced call girl; she was never prosecuted, but the government thought it had a solid case, and she does not deny its accuracy. Some years later, she asks a blog to remove an item quoting that news story.
Again, would you remove the blog post? Might you keep it up but redact her name?
* * *
Please post your answer in the comments, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org; if you have specific examples you can give, even anonymizing the details as necessary, that would be especially useful. And if you don't know the answer to such questions, but know somehow who does—whether an editor at your newspaper, or (even if you aren't yourself a reporter or editor) a friend of yours who is in the newspaper business—please pass this query along.
Many thanks, and I much look forward to seeing what answers people give.