The Rant received an email Monday from Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor and author of the Washington Post‘s “Volokh Conspiracy” blog, explaining that someone, somewhere had requested that Google de-index our April stories about the 2011 arrest of Lee County Board of Education member Sherry-Lynn Womack.
A request to de-index — which does not appear to have been granted as of Tuesday — would mean the URLs hosting the stories would no longer appear in Google searches.
Our story resulted in coverage from the Sanford Herald (subscription required), in which Womack at first denied the arrest before her husband then acknowledged its veracity, said the charges had been dismissed and that the arrest record had allegedly been ordered expunged. Despite the Womacks’ claim that the arrest report had been expunged – which would mean that records would be ordered destroyed – a report detailing service of the warrant was obtained via a request for public information. The warrant for breaking and entering was issued in Buncombe County and served at the Womacks’ home in Lee County.
The Herald’s story was also requested for de-indexing, according to Volokh.
Via an attorney, Womack told the Herald in April that she was looking at “civil and criminal penalties” for those “trafficking” the arrest report. The request to Google could indicate those aims have been abandoned.
Volokh contacted both the Rant and the Herald Monday, explaining that “attempts to get material deindexed by Google” have been a recent focus of his blog and that such requests are often granted in libel cases – but not in ones based on expungement.
“Google has a policy that, if you send it a court order that finds that someone has libeled you on some Web page, Google will consider removing that page from its indexes. Google has no legal obligation to do this, and it often won’t do it; but sometimes, it does deindex material, so people ask,” Volokh wrote. “People have also recently been asking Google to deindex material based on expungement orders. As best I can tell, Google does not act on those orders, because expungements aren’t findings that any statement was false (unlike libel judgments); they are just orders from one branch of the government to another to destroy its records or at least make them unavailable. Still, many people don’t know that, so they try to get stories about them erased.”
Volokh sent a screenshot showing the request for deindexing, which he tracks via something called the Lumen Database. The screenshot shows someone using the name Sherry Womack made the request:
In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was the job of protagonist Winston Smith to destroy or alter past news according to the whims of the government. “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past,” Orwell wrote, presciently forecasting that the ability to control the news would produce a form of control over people.
We hope Google doesn’t grant the request to bury our stories, or the Herald’s. Every statement of fact in those stories is true, and we stand by them, regardless of attempts by others to make them disappear.