Each week, our newspaper publishes, in both our print and on-line editions, a “jail log” column. Based on in-formation the sheriff gives us, we list the name of each person booked into the county jail in the prior week, along with the person’s date of birth, the offense for which the person was arrested, and the date. The column contains a dis-claimer stating that the information has been provided to us by the sheriff, that arrest is not the same as conviction, and that the charges may later be dismissed or the person may be acquitted at a trial. Last week, we got a call from a person who had been listed in the jail log about a year ago. He does not dispute that he was arrested and jailed, but he says the charges were later dropped, which we have confirmed with the County Attorney, and he wants us to change the column in our on-line archive to delete the reference to him and his arrest. Are we obligated to do that?
No. Since there is no claim that the original story was wrong, this is not a request for a retraction or correction, and the new Defamation Mitigation Act, which applies to claims based on “the false content of a publication” does not apply. Similarly, this is not a request for a follow-up story reporting the drop-ping of the charges, although such a story, while not legally required, may be something you would consider publish-ing. Rather, this is a request to alter retroactively the content of a previously published story.
While the analogy does not always fit, many questions involving electronic publication can be analyzed by drawing a parallel to the old, print-only world. In the print-only days, if a reader had asked you to go into your morgue, and into your local public library’s archives, with a pair of scissors and cut out all references to this person from an old jail log column, chances are you not only would have said no, you would not have even taken the request seriously. This reader’s request is really no different: he wants you to take some electronic “scissors” and remove his name from a previously published story now maintained in your electronic archives. The answer should be no different today than it was when you published only on newsprint. If you do publish a follow-up story reporting that the charges were dropped, you may wish to consider adding a link from the old story to the follow-up story, as many publications do—but that isn’t the same thing as removing the old story and pretending it was never published in the first place.