From the Legal Hotline (1-877-NEWS-LAW)
Q. I received an email today from a reader stating that the paper has an outdated online legal notice that is being associated with his name. He asks that we have it de-indexed from Google Search. He doesn’t have a problem with it appearing on our newspaper website, he just needs it deindexed and delinked from Google Search engines for privacy reasons. My question is this: Do we bear a responsibility to pull down legals at some point? I really don’t have any idea how to get something off the web, and am not sure you really can. But I thought I should ask in case any non-action on this could cause me a headache.
A. You don’t have any obligation to pull down legals unless there is something inaccurate or untrue although you have the discretion to do so on your site if you so choose. As for Google Search, I am also not sure how you would delink/deindex any legal notice from that site even if you wanted to.
Q. We have a problem at the paper. In short: our sheriff’s office has decided that our coverage (actually, specifically mine) has not been fair, and has severed most relations with us, including removing every single one of us from their media contact list, not responding to interview requests, or answering sometimes even basic questions unless it is very explicitly a public record request. Also, pettily, canceling their subscription.
I was wondering if you had any advice or experience with this sort of thing.
Several of the above actions have occurred much later after my coverage – for instance, the removal of everyone here from media lists happened a year after the last thing I wrote about them.
The fact that it is escalating, that there are stories that are going unwritten, and the power imbalance is so marked, makes this an increasingly untenable situation for us. The sheriff’s office is by far the largest police department in the county, with an extremely successful online presence.
Any advice or suggestions would be helpful. As a note: Nearly all of this has taken place through email with their PIO.
A. As you have seen, access to coverage of law enforcement can be challenging because the culture can be insular and tough to penetrate and because they have a lot of discretion in how much access they will grant in terms of what you lay out—media contact lists, interview requests, answering basic questions (unless it is an explicit PR request, as noted below), etc. Their view that they have been treated unfairly may not be legitimate, but unfortunately gives them an opportunity to limit the extent of access they can voluntarily provide or not provide the media across the board. This can be even more difficult in the age of Marsy’s Law where some agencies take a broad interpretation of “victim” to limit the availability of arrest report information, and the like.
That said, it does seem to me to be problematic that they are singling you out on their media contact list and in other areas. This is highly suspect because it is not a content-neutral restriction, as it specifically limits some members (you) and other members of the press and the general public. Courts have recognized constitutional violations for retaliatory actions like shutting select journalists out of press conferences because of editorial content. See, e.g., Times-Picayune Publ’g Corp. v. Lee, Civ. A. No. 88-1325, 1988 WL 36491 (E.D. La. Apr. 15, 1988); Borreca v. Fasi, 369 F. Supp. 906 (D. Haw. 1974). See also The Chicago Reader v. Sheahan, 141 F. Supp. 2d 1142 (E.D. Ill. 2001) (retaliation against specific journalist by restricting access to prison violates First Amendment). You might point this out if you think it might help your cause.
Also, perhaps other media are also being similarly limited in access? If so, could you and other local media form a coalition and try and have a sit down with the Sheriff to discuss?
Regarding public records in general, this is not discretionary on the sheriff’s office—this is information which you and any other citizens have a legal right to access and are entitled to responses within a reasonable time and if not provided, the legal basis for the denial. It appears that they are abiding by requests currently but if you run into delays or roadblocks on PR that you can’t overcome on your own, let us know and we can provide guidance on how to respond.