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We’re expanding our right-to-be-forgotten experiment: Chris Quinn

September 12, 2018

We’re expanding our right-to-be-forgotten experiment: Chris Quinn

We launched our right-to-be-forgotten experiment two months ago and began fielding requests from people to remove their identities from cleveland.com stories about minor crimes they committed.

So far, we’ve taken five names out of stories.

One was someone who had been in the health field and stole some drugs from her employer. A judge eventually declared that she not only had completed her sentence but had completely rehabilitated herself. He sealed records of her crime so she could move on with her life, meaning you could not find the records today.

She lost her license to work in her healthcare field, but as she sought to begin a new career, any Google search of her name brought up our stories about her crime, along with her mug shot.

Another was a man who stole some scrap metal years ago, completed his sentence and had his record sealed. Yet our story dogged him.

Our thinking, as I explained in July, is that people should not have to pay for a mistake for the rest of their lives. Because cleveland.com is so big, our content appears high in search engines, meaning that if we published a story about a minor crime you committed, our story often would be the first thing to appear in searches of your name.

In the old days, a story about a minor crime would appear on a newspaper page and quickly begin to fade from memory. It did not haunt you for the rest of time.

Our policy these last two months has been that we would remove names from stories if the records of the crimes had been sealed by a judge and did not involve violence, sex crimes or public corruption.

We have, however, heard from people whose embarrassing stories were not based in the courts. Or they were people who were peripheral to a crime story and never charged. No record existed for a judge to seal. Shouldn’t they, too, have the opportunity to have their names removed?

So, we’re expanding our experiment. We’re taking an idea from our colleagues at our sister site, nj.com, and form a newsroom committee to consider requests for removing names from stories where search engines can find them. Once a month or so, we will put the requests on the table for discussion.

Why a committee? We are introducing some subjectivity into this, and we want to form a consensus with multiple viewpoints. Originally, this was was simple. Persuade a judge to seal your records, and unless you were involved in violence or corruption, we’d remove your name. With this expansion, we’ll have to consider many other factors.

Fairness will be the principle that guides us. We will try to answer the question, case by case, as to whether the harm being done to the people who seek our help outweighs the value to the community of the information remaining public. The amount of time that has passed since the story appeared will be a factor. As will the notoriety. In New Jersey, fewer than half the requests are granted.

The agenda for our first meeting already has multiple requests on it. The way to get on the agenda is to send a note to tobeforgotten@cleveland.com, with a link to the pieces in question and your reasons for wanting your name removed. Please provide as much information as you can to help guide us.

This is all new ground for us. Nothing requires that we do this. A good many people argue that we should not do this. And we, of course, have sole authority to make the decisions.

We do not, however, want to be a vehicle for the needless suffering of people who long ago made a mistake, paid for it and tried to move ahead.

We’ll see how this new process goes and get back to you on our progress.

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