Free to Tell the Truth About People’s Past Crimes:

I’m pleased to report that a couple of weeks ago, the California Supreme Court held that people are free to tell the truth about others’ past crimes. Thirty years earlier, the court had held, in Briscoe v. Reader’s Digest, that when a crime was long enough in the past, it would be an “invasion of privacy” for others to publish information about the supposedly “reformed” criminal, and the criminal could sue for lots of money over that. (California courts had also held that much earlier, in the 1930s, and some other state courts had followed suit.) Now the California Supreme Court has overruled Briscoe, and concluded that recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions protect accurate accounts of public records — such as people’s past criminal convictions — despite the passage of time.

To explain why I think this is an excellent decision — and why I’m strongly opposed to some “privacy” and “paid his debt to society” rhetoric in such cases — I’m taking the liberty to exhume an old item of my own, from my 2000 article on Freedom of Speech and Information Privacy: The Troubling Implications of a Right to Stop People From Speaking About You, 52 Stanford L. Rev. 1049 (2000):

[In Briscoe, Reader’s Digest was held liable for revealing that Briscoe had eleven years earlier been convicted of armed robbery (a robbery that involved his fighting “a gun battle with the local police”). The court acknowledged that the speech, while not related to any particular political controversy, was newsworthy; the public is properly concerned with crime, how it happens, how it’s fought, and how it can be avoided. Moreover, revealing the identity of someone “currently charged with the commission of a crime” is itself newsworthy, because “it may legitimately put others on notice that the named individual is suspected of having committed a crime,” thus presumably warning them that they may want to be cautious in their dealings with him.

But revealing Briscoe’s identity eleven years after his crime, the court said, served no “public purpose” and was not “of legitimate public interest”; there was no “reason whatsoever” for it. The plaintiff was “rehabilitated” and had “paid his debt to society.”) “[W]e, as right-thinking members of society, should permit him to continue in the path of rectitude rather than throw him back into a life of shame or crime” by revealing his past. “Ideally, [Briscoe’s] neighbors should recognize his present worth and forget his past life of shame. But men are not so divine as to forgive the past trespasses of others, and plaintiff therefore endeavored to reveal as little as possible of his past life.” And to assist Briscoe in what the court apparently thought was a worthy effort at concealment, the law may bar people from saying things that would interfere with Briscoe’s plans.

Judges are of course entitled to have their own views about which things “right-thinking members of society” should “recognize” and which they should forget; but it seems to me that under the First Amendment members of society have a constitutional right to think things through in their own ways. And some people do take a view that differs from that of the Briscoe judges: While criminals can change their character, this view asserts, they often don’t. Someone who was willing to fight a gun battle with the police eleven years ago may be more willing than the average person to do something bad today, even if he has led a blameless life since then (something that no court can assure us of, since it may be that he has continued acting violently on occasion, but just hasn’t yet been caught).

Under this ideology, it’s perfectly proper to keep this possibility in mind in one’s dealings with the supposedly “reformed” felon. While the government may want to give him a second chance by releasing him from prison, restoring his right to vote and possess firearms, and even erasing its publicly accessible records related to the conviction, his friends, acquaintances, and business associates are entitled to adopt a different attitude. Most presumably wouldn’t treat him as a total pariah, but they might use extra caution in dealing with him, especially when it comes to trusting their business welfare or even their physical safety (or that of their children) to his care. And, as Richard Epstein has pointed out, they might use extra caution in dealing with him precisely because he has for the last eleven years hidden this history and denied them the chance to judge him for themselves based on the whole truth about his past. Those who think such concealment is wrong will see it as direct evidence of present bad character (since the concealment was continuing) and not just of past bad character. . . .

[W]hich viewpoint about our neighbors’ past crimes is “right-thinking” and which is “wrong-thinking” is the subject of a longstanding moral debate. Surely it is not up to the government to conclude that the latter view is so wrong, that Briscoe’s conviction was so “[il]legitimate” a subject for consideration, that the government can suppress speech that undermines its highly controversial policy of forgive-and-forget. I can certainly see why all of us might want to suppress “information about [our] remote and forgotten past[s]” in order “to change . . . others’ definitions of [ourselves].” But in a free speech regime, others’ definitions of me should primarily be molded by their own judgments, rather than by my using legal coercion to keep them in the dark.

So the new California Supreme Court’s decision (Gates v. Discovery Communications, Inc.) is a victory for free speech. And to the extent that it’s a defeat for “privacy,” it’s a defeat for a form of privacy that the law ought not recognize — a putative right to stop people from telling the truth about what you’ve done.

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