Minnesotans should welcome newspapers that record -- and not rewrite -- history
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. He appeals to the courts to have his record expunged. The judge obliged - sealed the records so, in the eyes of the court, the person's misconduct never occurred. The individual subsequently demanded the newspaper remove any reference to the conviction from its electronic archives.
You be the editor. Would you accommodate?
Newspapers increasingly field requests to destroy all reference to expunged data, especially in the age of electronic records. It's a distressing trend to editors and reporters whose role is to generate a living history of their communities. Rank-and-file citizens should be troubled, too. That's the message your community newspaper and the Minnesota Newspaper Association deliver during "Sunshine Week: Your Right to Know," March 11-17.
Editors routinely are lobbied to withhold news as individuals 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 lack the evidence to substantiate the original charges.
Those cases notwithstanding, newspapers and the public 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 consider 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 has 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 are not insensitive to criminal charges that have 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; they still are on file at courthouses. That's why newspapers are careful to track proceedings and publish follow-up stories. Individuals, in turn, can produce these stories as evidence of court action.
Newspapers take their role seriously. We are here to "record" history and not "rewrite" history.