Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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Connecticut’s Criminal Records Erasure Statute (Erasure Statute) does not render historically accurate news accounts of an arrest tortious or defamatory on the grounds that the charges were later nolled and the record of the arrest was erased.
Lorraine Martin and her two sons were arrested on drug charges. Local newspapers, owned by the Hearst Corporation and News 12 Interactive (the defendants), reported on the arrest and published on-line articles detailing the specifics of the arrest. More than a year later, the State of Connecticut decided not to proceed with the case, and because the criminal case against her was nolled, Martin’s arrest record was erased pursuant to the Erasure Statute.
After the case against her was nolled, Martin asked that the articles about her arrest be removed from the newspapers’ websites. In her view, once the arrest record had been erased, it became false and defamatory to report on her arrest since, by operation of the Erasure Statute, she is deemed to have never been arrested.
The newspapers refused to remove the stories from their websites, so Martin filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, asserting causes of action for libel, placing another in a false light before the public, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy by appropriation. The Court dismissed her case, noting that “‘Connecticut’s erasure laws do not alter the historical fact that Ms. Martin was arrested’” and that all her claims “fail because ‘there is no genuine dispute’” about the veracity of the reports of her arrest in the published articles.
Martin appealed the decision, arguing that even though she had been arrested, once erasure of her arrest record occurred, it became false and defamatory to publish statements regarding that arrest.
Wesley, R., Circuit Judge, delivered the opinion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The Court found that Martin had misunderstood the effect of the Erasure Statute. The Erasure Statute only requires that, in the context of judicial and law enforcement systems, certain official records be erased, which grants a defendant the legal status of one who has not been arrested. “The statute creates legal fictions, but it does not and cannot undo historical facts or convert once-true facts into falsehoods…[T]he statute does not render historically accurate news accounts of an arrest tortious merely because the defendant is later deemed as a matter of legal fiction never to have been arrested.”
The uncontroverted fact is that Martin was arrested, and the reports of her arrest were true at the time they were published. Therefore, because the published articles accurately reported Martin’s arrest, her various publication-related tort claims necessarily failed. Martin’s claims for libel and placing another in a false light failed because the articles do not contain falsehoods. Her claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress failed because there is nothing negligent about publishing a true and newsworthy article. And her claim for invasion of privacy by appropriation failed because a newspaper does not improperly appropriate an individual’s name or likeness merely by publishing an article that brings the individual’s activities before the public.
The Court also rejected Martin’s contention that the reports of her arrest were defamatory because they failed to mention that the case against her was eventually nolled. The Court found Martin’s arguments to be without merits and affirmed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of Hearst Corporation and News 12 Interactive, dismissing each of Martin’s claims.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case held that when a person’s arrest record is subject to the effects of Connecticut’s Erasure Statute (i.e., when they are deemed to have never been arrested), the erasure only has effect in the context of judicial and law enforcement systems. Accordingly, the Erasure Statute does not cause historically accurate news stories of an arrest to be treated as defamatory or false because of the erasure; therefore, news organizations are not required to redact articles published pertaining to such arrests.
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