Commentary: Newspapers record — not rewrite — historyAn individual is convicted of failure to comply with a police order; he pays his $100 fine plus $65 in court costs.
By: Jim Pumarlo, The Republican Eagle
An individual is convicted of failure to comply with a police order; he pays his $100 fine plus $65 in court costs. The misdemeanor is reported in the newspaper’s police blotter, and, in most cases, that would be the end of the story.
Not in this instance. The individual appealed to have his record expunged. The judge obliged – sealed the records so, in the eyes of the court, the misconduct never occurred. The individual subsequently demanded the newspaper remove any reference to the conviction from its electronic archives.
Such requests are being advanced with increasing frequency, as noted by Judge Kevin Mark in his April 7 commentary. He draws attention to a practice that should trouble anyone who believes that the role of newspapers is to record a living history of their communities. Count me among those ranks.
Newspapers routinely are lobbied to withhold news by individuals who cite the sensitivity of an incident, asserting that publication may create uncomfortable circumstances in their personal and/or professional lives. In the extreme cases, individuals say they have been denied employment, housing or professional licenses based on a mistake in their past; they pledge they have learned their lesson and ask the newspaper for leniency – to look the other way just this one time.
Some arguments may appear reasonable – even convincing. Consider a case where the court dismisses charges when, several weeks into the process, law enforcement authorities acknowledge they lacked the evidence to substantiate the charges.
Those cases notwithstanding, we all must look at the broader picture. It’s inevitable that if newspapers give an inch to withhold public records, someone will seek to take a mile. Open the door to altering or eliminating those court records that have been formally expunged, and newspapers will certainly be lobbied to destroy records of charges that have been formally dismissed by authorities.
Most expungements deal with court records, but think about a couple of other examples.
Consider marriage annulments. Should all references to a marriage – the publication of a marriage license application from the courts or the engagement/wedding write-ups submitted by the individuals themselves now be stricken from the records because a marriage has been legally declared invalid?
Or what about sports teams sanctioned by the NCAA and other governing bodies? Teams are stripped of titles, and “victories” are officially deemed “losses” in permanent records. Individual statistics are permanently altered – i.e. games played, points scored.
Facetious arguments? Not really. Rather, these real-life examples underscore the impracticality of requests to remove all reference to expunged records.
The Internet and electronic permanency of records certainly have elevated this discussion. It’s doubtful that individuals would storm into a newsroom and demand that editors collect and destroy all newspaper clippings on a story.
To be clear, newspapers should not be insensitive to criminal charges that have been dropped or court records that have been reversed. But remember, expungement does not mean that an incident never occurred. It simply means that actions were taken to permanently seal records; the information remains on file at courthouses. Responsible newspapers are careful to track proceedings and publish follow-up stories. Individuals, in turn, can produce these stories as evidence of court action.
Readers should welcome those newspapers that embrace their role to “record” history and not “rewrite” history. I support the premise that readers are best served by a full menu rather than a selective serving of public information.