Q&A: Expungement and newspaper stories


From Banner Graphic (Greencastle):

Q: A gentleman came to our office recently with a request that we remove stories about him from our website. He was convicted of sexual misconduct with a minor in 2009, and our site has several stories about the case that come up when his name is Googled. However, the conviction was recently expunged from his record.

We are sympathetic, but our unwritten policy has always been that it did in fact happen, and we simply reported it. One thought we had is to put a note at the end of the old stories about the expungement. Can you provide any insights?

A: HSPA unsuc­cessfully lobbied against the concept of expanding expungement over several sessions of the Indiana General Assembly.

HSPA understands the intent is to give individuals a better opportunity to move forward with their lives following a brush with the law, but just because you seal court records doesn’t change what actually occurred.

Newspapers are the first draft of history. Expunge­ment doesn’t change history – it just hides it in government records in my view.

I don’t see any obligation for newspapers to redact past coverage of the courts due to an expungement. I do like the suggestion of offering, when someone comes forward, an editor’s note with the original online entry that the case has been officially expunged.

This doesn’t erase what you reported but reflects the fact that the courts approved the individual’s request for expungement of the records. I’m sure this won’t totally satisfy the person trying to erase the past, but it shows the individual satisfied the state requirements for expungement, which hopefully will give people pause before judging the individual harshly.

It’s more a policy matter than a legal matter for a newspaper.

Contact Steve Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel, with media law questions at skey@hspa.com or (317) 624-4427.