Earlier this week you may have read that a woman was convicted of manslaughter for encouraging a young man to take his life via text message. As put by Quintus Curtius, “[m]any voices wrongly saw this case as some sort of “free speech” issue; but closer examination of the facts paints the case in a very different light.” Namely, what she did went far beyond the pale, and her words crossed the line into criminal conduct. Words can have more of an affect than just a hurt feeling.
Over the years, my views on the First Amendment have evolved. When I first started practicing law, I’d describe myself as a total purist, and everyone should be able to say anything they want without any redress. To quote Marc Randazza, combat bad speech with good speech.
As I continued to practice and I saw more things, I started to believe that speech should not be completely unlimited, as words can have an impact on people’s careers, and this week even their lives.
Which brings us to the curious case of Dr. Claudio V. Cerullo. I met Claudio about a year ago, and we’ve since become friends (even though he’s a Dallas Cowboys fan). Claudio runs an organization called “Teach Anti-Bully“. This weekend Claudio’s organization presented a disabled man with a Medal of Courage in front of the Rocky statue after he was the victim of an assault.
Teach Anti-Bully is a cool organization that helps a lot of kids out. I’m sure many out there wish there were resources on bullying when they were kids.
Interestingly, when you google Claudio, the first link that comes up is a wild story about a high school principal who was arrested for stealing a pair of sunglasses and impersonating an FBI officer. That’s technically true. Claudio was arrested and charged with those felonies.
However, it also turns out that there’s a bit more to the story. It came out that what actually happened is the store clerk believed a business card was an FBI badge (why would an FBI badge have an email address and phone number on it, but that’s besides the point). The sunglasses were also later found in the store. So, no one stole the glasses or impersonated an officer. But, as often happens, at the advice of counsel, Claudio pled guilty to Disorderly Conduct, which is basically a traffic ticket, to avoid the expense and hassle of going back to court. I would have probably done the same thing. Nevertheless, if you read the Lehigh Valley articles, they certainly seem to imply that Claudio did something salaciously wrong.
The accuracy behind the stories is really besides the point. Here is my question… seven years later, the story of a high school principal who allegedly tried to steal a pair of sunglasses and impersonate an FBI officer remains at the top of Claudio’s google results. He no longer works as a principal, he paid the county a small fine, gotten married, and started a non-profit.
At what point should this story be forgotten? Even ten years ago, if a newspaper article was published about a person, it would be read, discussed for a week, and eventually find itself on the bottom of the bird cage. Now with the internet, stories are enshrined forever.
This means that for the last seven years, Claudio has had to explain these two articles to every single potential employer, donor to his foundation, and anyone who decides to run a google search. All for pleading guilty to what essentially amounts to a traffic ticket. The man was convicted of a summary offense, not a lifetime of shame. Yet…
Marc Randazza wrote about a “Right to be Forgotten” online, legislation that has been passed in Europe. This legislation doesn’t remove articles from the internet, instead it causes search engines not to find them. The article remains “up”, but it’s not the first thing a person finds about another person after a period of time. I think this legislation is both sensible and humane. It allows people like Claudio to move on with his life.
Is this First Amendment blasphemy? I don’t think so. At some point, a story is no longer newsworthy. It adds nothing to the public discourse. All it does is damage the individual who it’s about while serving no benefit to the public.
This is an especially curious case because Claudio is not a public figure, and pleading guilty to a disorderly conduct charge is like paying a traffic ticket.
At what point does everyone just get to move on with their lives?