Appeals Court: News Orgs Don't Have to Remove Stories When Criminal Records Are Expunged

Myanmar Press Newspapers 2013 H

On Wednesday, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a woman who had drug charges dropped against her and wiped from official records but couldn't convince newspapers owned by the Hearst Corporation to remove or update stories about her.

Lorraine Martin sued for libel, claiming that although the articles were factually true at the time they were published, they became false once the charges were erased. If she prevailed, it would have added up to immense new liability for news organizations, akin to the decision last year by a European Union court to enforce a "right to be forgotten."

But in an opinion by 2nd Circuit Judge Richard Wesley today, Connecticut's Erasure Statute "creates legal fictions, but it does not and cannot undo historical facts or convert once-true facts into falsehoods. Just as the Erasure Statute does not prevent the government from presenting witness testimony at a later trial that describes the conduct that underlies an erased arrest, the statute does not render historically accurate news accounts of an arrest tortious merely because the defendant is later deemed as a matter of legal fiction never to have been arrested."

The articles in question about Martin's arrest were accurate at the time they were published, and so there's no technical falsehood (outside of the legal system) to support a defamation claim.

Martin also attempted to win a claim for defamation by implication by asserting the articles only told part of the story, but Hearst — and the rest of the media — got another victory when the 2nd Circuit failed to impose any duty to follow-up.

"Reasonable readers understand that some people who are arrested are guilty and that others are not," states the opinion. "Reasonable readers also know that in some cases individuals who are arrested will eventually have charges against them dropped. Reporting Martin’s arrest without an update may not be as complete a story as Martin would like, but it implies nothing false about her."

Hearst and the other news organizations were represented by Jonathan Donnellan, Courtenay O'Connor, David Schulz and Cameron Stracher.

Twitter: @eriqgardner