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Expunge-worthy?

News item: Two judges in State College, Pa., have had to retract expungement orders submitted by a lawyer trying to clean up his clients’ records. The initial papers ordered all pertinent agencies to remove traces of charges against two people; included were directions to two local newspapers to purge any coverage of those same offenses from their databases and archives. When the papers cited the First Amendment, the judges woke up, acknowledged same and reissued the expungement orders. The lawyer, Joseph Amendola, said, according to the Associated Press, that he was concerned “the media’s First Amendment rights to free speech were trumping his clients’ rights to have cleared records.”

I hope the folks at the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression are paying attention to this story. Every year, they give out their “Muzzle” awards, citing violations of the First Amendment. The center announces the awards each year on April 13, Mr. Jefferson’s birthday. This guy at least deserves a nomination.

Lawyers bring expungement motions for a variety of reasons — charges have been dropped or dismissed, or someone successfully completes a rehab program or a probationary term. One can appreciate the lawyer’s trying to protect his clients’ records and reputations. The courts can control the official records, which will show nothing after the expungement. But going after newspapers, and trying to make it appear as if an event never happened, sounds like something you’d find in George Orwell.

Mr. Amendola cited what may be a legitimate concern: Once an article is published and Google gets hold of it, it lives in a Google-cached world forever. He said this is a “national issue” that “needs to be decided by the legislature.” Maybe he should review his con law.

What’s even more problematic, though, is that the judges in State College have been signing similar orders submitted by this lawyer and others almost routinely, maybe without reading them and certainly without much thought.

The two judges said that they had 36 prior expungement orders directed at the local papers to review and correct. Toss them into the hopper for a Muzzle nomination, too.

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