#52: Being acquitted sometimes just isn’t enough
News is available at any time of the day and it is freely accessible. And the news, even the old, can always be found through search engines like Google. Of course, this also applies to news about suspected criminal offences. Even if those suspicions eventually turn out to be incorrect. Although an acquittal for a suspect is certainly the most newsworthy of all, in practice the media unfortunately in general do not treat it this way. As a result, the news in which the person concerned is associated with the suspicion of criminal offences often remain to appear prominent on the internet. Should the acquitted suspect accept this?
Messages in the media about an unjustified suspicion of criminal offences can get in one persons’ way of life in general. All parties you deal with in daily life can find this information with a simple internet search: social contacts, a future employer, a financial service provider. For an acquitted suspect it is frustrating and damaging to be confronted with this all the time. This may even be experienced as an unjustified punishment.
Recently, the Dutch newspaper NRC reported “good news for innocent people with a contaminated reputation”. NRC brings to the attention a decision of a Spanish court. It concerns a case in which a Spanish psychologist, acquitted of abuse, continued to be confronted with all the accusing media reports when he was searched for via an online search engine. In the first eight results, only articles about the accusations emerged. The acquittal could only be found on the second search page.
The psychologist complained to the national Personal Data Authority. This authority ordered Google in 2017 to block the search results, except for the information about the acquittal. The Spanish court does not decide so rigorously on appeal: Google is free to show all news items, but the acquittal must be shown as the first google hit.
There has been a lot to do about the ‘right to be forgotten’. In fact, the question was always whether or not the information should be removed from the internet. It also led to the possibility to use this link to make a request to Google to have information removed from the search engine. But that possibility does not yet guarantee success for all cases.
So what can you do if the request for information removal about a suspicion from the past is not being granted? Because, for example, it is a fact that there was a suspicion of a criminal offence at the time and therefore the information at itself is correct? For that situation the decision as was taken by the Spanish court about which information should appear first, can perhaps mitigate the outcome of a Google search.
Being acquitted sometimes just is not enough. Of course, a compensation for lawyers fees and damages after an acquittal helps to recover from such an unpleasant experience. However, media can also be part of the process which jeopardizes the recovery. This Spanish decision shows that it can certainly be worthwhile to involve media law and a media law specialist in the aftercare of criminal proceedings that have ended successfully for the former suspect.