A Right to be Forgotten – the Curious Case of Claudio V. Cerullo

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?

24 Responses to A Right to be Forgotten – the Curious Case of Claudio V. Cerullo

  1. Thank you Jordan. Thank you for telling the story and all the while, as this man helps strangers all over the country from bullying and violence, no one can seem to help him, As times change, like Gay Marriage, transgender bathrooms, so should the First Amendment. People don’t deserve to live in fear each and everyday. Kudos my friend!

  2. tgt says:

    The problem with your argument is well defined: how do you decide what is still important? Who decides?

    If there’s an absolute right that applies after X years, then the right to be forgotten is simply the right to change your history. Changing Claudio’s history may be okay, but do we want to allow Trump to memory hole all his statements and court cases? How about Castro? Should we be banned from mentioning that Dr. Dre beat up a journalist? Or that Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert Kennedy? How about Joseph Rakofsky v. Internet? How long before he can get stories about that removed?

    If we let minor figures censor relatively minor stories, how do we stop more important people from censoring more important stories? It’s the same logic as protecting the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest funerals to protect other, better speech.

    • Cerberus Evanidus says:

      While I respect your argument because it is sound and based on logic, human beings are regularly allowed to get away with abusing the law. It could be our First Amendment or twisting Federal or state statutes. How do I know? It happened to me. The logic for these abuses is that an organization hides behind the First Amendment or with large enough purse strings. Where are the regular people who do the right thing? We are abused by the law. We are left holding the bag. Perhaps you can help this gentleman find a job every time an employer refuses him? Or perhaps recommend a practical solution to conduct the rest of his life? If it were you, would it be so easy?

      As I understand this gentleman’s case, it was a tiny mention akin to a police blotter in the newspaper. Of what value is this mention to society? I agree that it could be a slippery slope if we ignore minor offenses, but it doesn’t help a regular person get on with their life.

      There has to be a middle ground. Bruno Mars, Bill Gates, Stephanie Pratt, Tim Allen, 50 Cent, Chace Crawford, Michael Vick. All have criminal records. Some of the charges were more serious than a minor offense. For many of them, life continues. Perhaps you remember a slew of NFL players Who were only suspended for five or six games after found guilty of domestic violence charges? If you have enough money or influence (or score a touchdown) the first Amendment is kind. You already own a right to be forgotten.

      The world forgets for the rich, the famous or persons of influence. It does not forget for the common person. This is the problem.

      I think “right to be forgotten” legislation would probably be the wrong step in the United States because it would erode individual rights. We need a more practical legal solution that preserves our First Amendment, yet respects the individuals right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

      • tgt says:

        Does that break down to: “Powerful people do bad stuff. The rich get treated better than the poor. I would like to modify the first amendment without modifying the first amendment.” ?

    • Jason says:

      While I get your thought process, I’m not sure you fully grasp the article. This man did nothing wrong and has to pay the price for this ridiculous claim. Your arguments are relaying to the fact of censoring minor issues for people. There was no theft, nor false identification. It was all fabricated by the store clerk. Nothing was stolen.

      This man works daily to help people across the country fight against bullying. He has presented for tens of thousands of students and been interviewed dozens of times on TV and radio.

      Why should he have to answer for a “situation” that was unfounded. Not sure having to deal with this is fair for anyone trying to help people and be a productive member of society. Do you?

      1st amendment is one thing, but perpectuating falsehoods for no reason is something drastically different.

      • tgt says:

        I see multiple claims here.
        * Stories with falsehoods should be removed.
        * Bad stories about good people should be removed.

        The first is covered by libel laws. Beyond that, again, who and how do we decide? The person in question even plead guilty to an offense related to the issue, so it’s not like we can even fall back to a point where unconvicted people can have stories about them modified.

        The second is, again, a right to censor history…but only for people you like. That has all the problems already mentioned, plus an additional layer of who decides who is worthy.

  3. […] Yes, rules will often work in ways that produce unfortunate consequences, but that doesn’t mean the rule is unsound. Just that a good rule will occasionally produce outcomes that we might prefer they didn’t. Stercus addicit, and this time it happened to a client of Jordan Rushie. […]

  4. Joseph says:

    I to respect the First Amendment, however, when the evidence goes the other way, and someone, such as this gentleman is wrongfully accused, exceptions should be made to either update the story, or remove the original story. No one deserves to be ridiculed for the rest of their lives.

    • Joseph says:

      I agree with Jason! It’s one thing to report out, but another when the story is inaccurate and false.

      • Vanessa G. says:

        Agreed! Why should someone live with something they didn’t do and then be persecuted everytime they try and move on with their life. Just like gay marriage and transgender etc we need to get with the times. The 1st Amendment was written at a time when no one thought how this world was going to change!!

    • tgt says:

      So, how would you write up a change? Who decides what the evidence says? Do we create journalism courts? What standards do we use? Would people be allowed to write about someone’s desire to get information about them changed?

      While your heart is in the right place, nobody has come up with a plan that doesn’t create more problems than it solves. I don’t think it’s possible to do so, but I’d love to be proven wrong.

  5. Frank says:

    I would support this legislation, as it pertains to those individuals that have no record. I also do not feel that a story should be a part of one’s life history, if inaccurately presented.

    • tgt says:

      You realize that this doesn’t help Claudio, right?

      Also, you think a shoplifting charge 30 years earlier should prevent you from removing a completely unrelated story, but someone charged with 20 homicides that end up in hung juries can remove stories? Doesn’t make much sense to base it on a record.

      • Frank says:

        Hey TGT, there was no shoplifting charge though. They found the glasses, so not sure what you are referencing.

  6. Cerberus Evanidus says:

    I think Jason underscores a really important point lost in this discussion. Tgt responded to my comments above and I’ve thought about it. There is a flaw in my argument. I was focused on the wrong thing. The most important Point about the story is that the man is not guilty of anything. A true “right to be forgotten ” in this case is not a desire to bury a misdemeanor actually committed, but a desire to correct the facts. A crime was reported. It never took place.

    Imagine, a more common scenario that happens more frequently than I’d like to think. A man takes a woman on a date. They are intimate. The next day, she has buyers remorse and accuses him of rape. The man is tried and convicted. He spends time in jail. Six years later, his accuser reverses her story, apologizes to him and admits that the crime never occurred. It happened to Brian Banks.

    Imagine that five years ago someone had wrongly accused you of a misdemeanor. It never occurred but it follows you forever. Where is the justice in that?

    Claudio Cerullo. This man did nothing wrong. There is no justification or for these stories to remain prominent. Ultimately they represent incorrect or incomplete facts. Isn’t that what everyone’s talking about these days? Fake news.

    • tgt says:

      Who determines the crime never took place? Do we need an actual innocence court? What’s the burden of proof?

      Also note that you only got one perspective on Claudio’s actions in this post. There is no mention of the comments made to the clerk that suggest Claudio was law enforcement. There’s no mention of what was on the ID/business card that made the clerk think Claudio was FBI. For instance, did the card say FBI? There is no mention that Claudio was trying to get a $290 credit for $30 sunglasses purchased 6 years earlier.

      • Frank says:

        The clerk thought he saw a badge, but it was merely a business card of a family member. The Cherry Hill Detective never asked to see the business card. So many mistakes, and this man, that helps many pays the on-line price.

  7. Cerberus Evanidus says:

    I do think people can tell the difference between an FBI badge and a business cards because badges typically don’t have email information on them. An FBI Badge typically has a picture of the agent

    An FBI badge is two parts. Identification with a picture, the attorney general statement and an actual metal badge next to it. Typically you cant slide that into a wallet because it resides in a wallet of its own.

    Of course I don’t know the particulars of the clerk So it would appear the person was very young and inexperienced./Uneducated. Perhaps they never saw a police based TV show?

    I am uncertain where you got the $290 sunglasses /$30 information. It sounds like you pulled the police report and or read the statement of the clerk. Perhaps, I didn’t read Jordan’s post fully because I missed this fact. If this was based on the statement of the clerk, remember that we have one person statement against another.

    If I were to give an opinion, I would say that the attorney defending Claudio Cerullo failed to give his client the best advice and represent him fully. Although it is a typical practice to plead to a lesser charge To make the matter go away, in this case it was Bad advice. It’s hard to imagine about the field, but attorneys can sometimes be wrong.

  8. Jeff J says:

    There is a difference between doing what you are allowed to do as a news outlet because it is legal and doing the RIGHT thing because it the humane thing to do because there is NO benefit to the outlet to have an article still in the archives and online that is inaccurate. Amazing that I learned that other media outlets removed their inaccurate stories on this when the truth came to light and only this one outlet refuses to have a heart. Listen, every employer goes online and looks at prospective employees’ social media profiles and what’s available on Google. Claudio is getting totally screwed for no fault of his own and it appears to be a lifelong punishment for no good reason.

  9. Frank, Esq. says:

    Written By: SARAH CRUZ

    Do you believe in forgiveness? Do you believe in second chances? Everyone makes mistakes BUT how about if you don’t make a mistake and get falsely accused of a crime?

    Claudio Cerullo, an Easton Native, was falsely accused of taking sunglasses and impersonating an FBI agent back in March of 2010. After he was charged with 3 felony counts, the courts realized that there was no substance to the charges. Here is where the sad part for this man comes into play……

    One day, Claudio Cerullo decides to return a pair of sunglasses. The clerk mistook a business card for an FBI badge….that is a BIG mistake. Badges do not have emails and fax numbers on them. Secondly, the clerk says that a pair of sunglasses was missing from the store while Dr. Cerullo was waiting for him to make his return. Again what was not said was that all the glasses had alarms on them. Would they have not sounded once he tried to leave the store? The best part of it all is that three weeks later the glasses where found in the store by another clerk. As you can see this is already a mess and now a hard working, single dad is plastered all over the news for “Impersonating an FBI Agent and taking a Pair of Sunglasses”.

    After having to hire an attorney and having news reporters camped outside his home, the courts decided to down grade the charges to “Disturbing the Peace”. How do you go from three felonies to disturbing the peace? “Disturbing the Peace” as his attorney explained is like playing loud music. Why would this charge even apply? Why would this whole case not have been dismissed? Instead he was told by this attorney to plead guilty to disturbing the peace, pay the $1,000 fine and go back to work.

    This is wrong on so many levels…..”Why should I have to plead to something I didn’t do and pay money to boot”, said Dr. Cerullo. They embarrassed me and my family and now because we live in the world of technology, I will be embarrassed for the rest of my life.

    “As if things weren’t bad enough”, Cerullo said, “The internet has ruined who I am as a person all because a town like Cherry Hill must make some kind of money from this whole incident and I have to pay for it? Whatever happened to the clerk that made all these mistakes?”

    Now because of the internet, Dr. Cerullo has been the kind of victim he spends every day of his life protecting…… a victim of bullying. “People read articles about me and what’s perceived is believed” Cerullo said. “The sad part about it all is that I am judged based on what they read, not the other 999 things I have done to help children and families.”

    The internet is a destructive tool. Dr. Cerullo has had to live with what people read on the internet for the past six years. It has affected him deeply. Andrea Weckerle, Founder of Civilination, said, “These events happen not just to everyday people. They happen to celebrities and everyday folks, and moms, and dads, and children, and you name it. This is not just a U.S.-centric thing. It is an international problem. If people haven’t actually experienced this they tend to be very non-sympathetic, non-compassionate…. I hope it doesn’t happen to you. Everyone is vulnerable.” As Scheff pointed out, “You just don’t understand until it happens to you.”

    Dr. Cerullo has spent the last six years battling, along with a new attorney, the 1st amendment. Letters have been drafted to newspapers for the removal of the articles or at least an update with the correct information and to no avail he cannot get a response. A few local papers and TV stations were kind enough to remove them from their websites but it does not come close to what is still out there.

    How does this man move on with his life without the constant fear of being judged?

    • Rose says:

      This is the revised story that does not appear on page one of goggle.

      BY SARAH CRUZ
      SPECIAL TO NEWJERSEYNEWSROOMCOM
      EDITORIAL OPINION

      None of us believe that we ever will be falsely accused of a crime. After all, we have been brought up to believe that the United States has the best “justice” system in the world, and that there are honest people who never would try to frame an innocent person. Unfortunately, that is not the case anymore. People will blame and defame innocent people and prosecutors are all-too-happy to put innocent people on trial or force them to plead out to crimes they did not commit, because they want to wrap things up quicker and often take client’s money that they don’t have in the first place. THAT is the reality of law.
      After you get over the first wave of shock and anger of being falsely accused, you probably just are confused and want this nightmare to go away. You have to understand, however, that the police and the local prosecutors really are not interested in whether or not you actually did the things of which you are accused. That’s right; they are not interested. They already have decided you are guilty, and their mission is to spin everything that they find into a way to get to hold you accountable.
      This is a story of a prominent professional, a single dad and a man who has dedicated his life to the safety and well being of students all around the country. On February 22,, 2010, Claudio Cerullo, an educator and renowned anti-bullying advocate, walked into a store to return a pair of sunglasses. After giving his credit card and driver’s license to the store clerk and while waiting for the transaction to be processed, Dr. Cerullo walked around the store looking at other pairs of glasses as anyone would do. The clerk was finally done and Dr. Cerullo went about his day. Two weeks later, the nightmare happened. Dr. Cerullo was arrested and accused of allegedly impersonating an FBI agent and for taking a pair of sunglasses. After being the main story on many TV stations and newspaper articles, Cerullo appeared in court and within three days the charges were downgraded to municipal court. The police realized that they had made mistakes, but did not want to admit this to the media. The clerk later discovered the whereabouts of the missing glasses, and Dr. Cerullo pays the price for the mistakes of others. His attorney then states that he has two options, because the court felt the charges were not warranted. He could either take a local ordinance for disturbing the peace, or have a hearing in three months. What appeared to be an FBI identification badge as previously thought by a store clerk in the sunglass store, was merely a business card in his wallet underneath his driver’s license. In addition, there was no evidence that he had taken sunglasses from the sunglass store located in the Cherry Hill Mall. Weeks following this event, the sunglasses in question were found by another employee of the store.
      Cerullo was told he should take the plea as it’s a slap on the wrist, pay a $1,000.00 fine and go back to work. Sounds like a no brainer to many that would be confronted with this situation… right? Wrong! How does one get accused of three felonies and end up with a local ordinance you ask?
      Well, many townships have taxes that need to be paid….see even a business can destroy people’s lives based on their tax base, and a mall brings in a lot of many. After the hearing, Cerullo decided not to return to his position, because he felt that he was not supported in the first place and he sought to move on to a better opportunity. Nor did he file a civil suit against the sunglass store or the clerk, as he is not a litigious person. He just wanted the whole ordeal to be over and return back to work. Even though according to other sources, this is not the first incident that the store clerk made false accusations against other patrons.

      Now, here is where the big problem lies. The internet! Dr. Cerullo’s incident is plastered all over the World Wide Web, and because of the First Amendment, his integrity, and character are now compromised, because of what people can read on-line. Even a district attorney from Northampton County, PA, emailed a local newspaper editor on Cerullo’s behalf in his county asking for the removal of the initial news article:

      Dear Editor,
      I was contacted by Claudio Cerullo whose organization is nationally recognized in the area of anti-bullying education. A few years ago, he was wrongfully accused of a crime. All records of same have been dismissed. I have attached his clearances and his criminal history which shows no criminal record.
      All news outlets EXCEPT the ………. have removed links about this. I have attached the ……….. link below. Is there any way you can assist with the removal of this story in light of the expungement and due to the fact that he really did not do anything wrong? I may want to use his organization up here on this issue and it is damaging to have this floating around the Internet.
      Thanks for looking at this. ………………
      Not only did the editor not remove the initial article, but he went ahead and removed over 30 favorable comments placed under the article in Cerullo’s defense.
      How can anybody just do this and ruin someone’s reputation?
      Dr. Claudio Cerullo has been in education for over 20 years, as his focus has always been protecting children and advocating for families in need. He started an anti-bullying organization two-years ago, which its sole mission is to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. However, who is fighting for him? Since this incident occurred nearly four years ago, the social and emotional damage has been very traumatic to him, his family and his little nine-year old daughter. He is concerned every day that someone will read the story and make personal judgments that will affect his livelihood and his nonprofit credibility. He has earned many achievements, both personally and professionally, and has had great success in fighting for children throughout his twenty-plus years in education. It’s unfortunate that situations like this can distort someone’s reputation and credibility, especially when they have dedicated their lives to the education, safety and welfare of children and families alike.

      What can we now nearly six-years later to protect others from being falsely accused and having their lives ruined? How many more people have experienced this same type of online damage and have no recourse? How do we change the laws to help protect the innocent and the privacy of their lives in the future.

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  10. Cerberus Evanidus says:

    I understand the desire for the “right to be forgotten” the following article in the Wall Street Journal raises some serious First Amendment concerns.

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/eu-court-to-rule-on-right-to-be-forgotten-outside-europe-1500470225

  11. Demetre Pough Edwards says:

    Dr. Cerullo is an amazing person; such a kind hearted man. It’s very ironic how he has been a victim of bullying because of this ordeal. Although, this issue continues to come to surface, Dr. Cerullo keeps moving forward to help children and young adults. He’s definitely a stellar person in character

    • Rose says:

      I still think it’s wrong what occurred to this man. I never met him, but from what I read, the entire situation was mishandled from the start.

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