A state law went into effect in April that expunged felony and misdemeanor convictions for an estimated 1 million Michiganders.
That is a staggering number – roughly 1 in 6 adults in the state have had prior misdeeds wiped from the public record. The intent of the law is to recognize the debt paid to society, and to remove barriers to employment, housing and education.
The expungements are automatic; affected people don’t need to apply or file paperwork. But they are not all-encompassing – some serious offenses are excluded, there are time-period requirements and people cannot have pending offenses. In other words, there are always mitigating circumstances.
We understand that at MLive, and that is why we have made changes over the past several years to be responsive to how society views the “right to be forgotten” for past mistakes. That is increasingly relevant in a world floating on an ocean of digitized information and remorseless search engines.
In this column in July 2020, I told you how we were curtailing the use of routine mugshots in crime and court stories.
And two years ago, I announced that we would begin taking requests from subjects of stories to remove our reporting from the internet. That came on the heels of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signing a package of bills lessening the consequences and punishment for minor or first-time criminal activity.
Hundreds of people have contacted us, asking for stories to be unpublished. Not all are related to crimes; sometimes, a person looks back on something they said or did and decides it has not aged well or is creating difficulties in their present life.
Since the expungement law went into effect, we’ve taken a more formal look at our process of removing content from our site. That led us to create a committee that reviews all requests and a new email for requests: email@example.com.
There are some guidelines:
- The person requesting the deletion must be the person in the story. We will not accept third-party requests or attorney letters.
- There are other categories that can’t and shouldn’t be forgotten: Homicides, sexual assaults, fatal car accidents are among them.
- Requests may take several weeks to process. A request may not be answered immediately.
So what can be removed? Low-level crime stories, such as marijuana convictions from years ago, or a teen vandalism incident where no one was harmed.
Here are some recent examples: a young woman who won an award in elementary school but now wants more professional items in a Google search of her name. A woman whose photo from her brother’s funeral was deeply upsetting. (We removed one photo but kept the rest.) A man whose home address had been included in old stories of a murder suspect. (Stories of the murder remain.)
Not all stories will be removed, noted Kelly Frick, senior director of news for MLive.
“We consider our stories to be a part of a community’s history, a record of what has happened,” she said. “Some stories should remain part of that record.”
I want to note that the press is not bound by the terms of the state expungement law – we’re an institution that constitutionally stands alone from, and is watchdog over, public entities.
That means if it’s a taxpayer-funded function, we are unlikely to take it down. For instance, it is extremely rare for us to delete a story about someone speaking at a city council meeting; about misconduct by a school board member or principal; or a law-enforcement officer who was disciplined.
“For many journalists, me included, deleting the reporting of important events feels wrong. If it was important enough to write about, it should be available to the public,” Frick said.
“But I think we also understand that the digital age has made finding that content so much easier than going to a library to look up old copies of the newspaper. This isn’t a perfect system, but we try to do the right thing for each circumstance, each request.”
Doing the right thing isn’t new, but it needs updating for the times we live in. Where search engines don’t and can’t provide professional judgment or empathy, MLive editors will.
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John Hiner is the vice president of content for MLive Media Group. If you have questions you’d like him to answer, or topics to explore, share your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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