Should mug-shots of exonerated people be public information?

It was only a matter of time before the Internet started to monetize humiliation. In this case, the time was early 2011, when mug-shot Web sites started popping up to turn the most embarrassing photograph of anyone’s life into cash. The sites are perfectly legal, and they get financial oxygen the same way as other online businesses — through credit card companies and PayPal. Some states, though, are looking for ways to curb them. The governor of Oregon signed a bill this summer that gives such sites 30 days to take down the image, free of charge, of anyone who can prove that he or she was exonerated or whose record has been expunged. Georgia passed a similar law in May. Utah prohibits county sheriffs from giving out booking photographs to a site that will charge to delete them.

But as legislators draft laws, they are finding plenty of resistance, much of it from journalists who assert that public records should be just that: public. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argues that any restriction on booking photographs raises First Amendment issues and impinges on editors’ right to determine what is newsworthy. That right was recently exercised by newspapers and Web sites around the world when the public got its first look at Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard gunman, through a booking photograph from a 2010 arrest. (New York Times)

Today’s Question: Should mug-shots of exonerated people be public information?

  • Robb Mitchell

    We do have libel and slander laws to protect individuals that a free speech purists could easily interpret to be violations of the First Amendment, just like there have always been laws restricting access to guns that fanatics feel, in a purists interpretation, violate the Second Amendment. This is not a slam-dunk case for those who pretend to have the Constitution on their side.

    • Hi Rob, Interesting comment. What do you think of the argument made by the the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press? The group argues “that any restriction on booking photographs raises First Amendment issues and impinges on editors’ right to determine what is newsworthy.”

      • Gnosis Sisong

        The reporters are correct. Explotation of these photos (especially for laughs as some of these sites do) is shameful but the criminal justice system needs to be public and transparent.

        • Peter Tobias

          First of all, the justice system needs to be just, and what is just in hanging out someone for public amusement only because they have been arrested. The justice system needs to be public enough to be accountable to the public, but how should arrest photos help in that? I go even further than the question about photos of explicitely exonerated people – every arrest photo should remain hidden until conviction, if not needed for a public purpose, like photos used in public appeals for more informmation about a crime or previous arrest photos from fugitives in another crime.

      • Robb Mitchell

        I disagree with the broad and categorical statement “any restriction on booking photographs raises First Amendment issues” because a shaming web site designed to exploit and shame for profits is not exercising an “editor’s right to determine what is newsworthy.”

    • Fred Garvin

      Libel and slander only apply when the underlying statement is not true.
      A mug shot occurs shortly after and incidental to an arrest. The TRUTH is that the arrest occured, thus it is not libel to make that statement or to use the mug that was part of the arrest.
      There is a civil action for wrongful arrest against law enforcement, bu there is no civil action for libel.
      I think a better and more troublesome question is whether OTHER info gathered incidental to an arrest is or should be make publicly available: fingerprints, DNA profiles, addresses, inventories of personal items, etc.
      I have no patience for advocacy groups like RCFP–they’re only interested on furthering a radical agenda and have little if any useful insights.

  • PaulJ

    Getting exonerated sounds painful enough without everyone pointing and laughing.

  • Rich in Duluth


    To me, this is very close to the issue of who owns my personal data. Does an image of me belong to me, or to the person/entity that makes the image? I think that, just like my name, address, Social Security number, bank account number, DNA data, pay rate, or any other personal information, it belongs to me. If I give this information for a particular purpose, it should only be used for that purpose.

    It’s appropriate for the state to take a mug shot for the purpose of identification of a possible criminal. Any other use is inappropriate.

    • JQP

      I agree, there is far to liberal an interpretation on the re-use of public data. if the government needs to collect all of the data, it needs to protect it as well.

      • Fred Garvin

        I think that your point is insightful–this isn’t a private citizen taking photos of people in public–it’s our government gathering information from a private citizen whose liberty had been deprived.
        Government MUST protect the infromation is has forceably gathered, otherwise we’ll have another Obama using it to rig and illegally influence elections.

        • Robb Mitchell

          The government? Private industry and profit venturers like these guys and their shaming web site are much more massively involved in gathering private information on individuals and tracking them than the government. Google and it ability to mine information, facial scanning and recognition and locating mapping puts the ‘gummint’ to shame. Privacy concerns are legit but fearmongering with lies and deception is childish and illogical.

  • JQP

    I think it should be a crime to leverage public data for a business activity. so … you want to “promote” mug shots or arrest records … fine.. but you are NOT allowed to sell advertising or charge for delivery/access/packaging of the data. You can, however do it out of he goodness of your heart.

  • Mark

    No. There is no legal reason that it needs to be.

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