Google never forgets: Seventh Circuit finds no right to force search engines to block access to embarrassing public records

The ability of search engines to dredge up unflattering facts has provoked global debate over whether people should have a legal “right to be forgotten” — that is, a right to demand that embarrassing personal details be taken offline. But that discussion has gained no traction in the United States, thanks to the strong First Amendment presumption against restraining the distribution of truthful information.

In a recent 3-0 ruling, Nieman v. VersusLaw, Inc., a federal appeals court in Illinois reaffirmed that there is no right to demand the “de-archiving” of truthful information contained in lawsuits and other public records.

The case was brought by a disappointed job-seeker, who claims that would-be employers were passing him over because Internet search results for his name resulted in links to a lawsuit he filed against a previous employer. He demanded that Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft de-link these documents from his search results, and that VersusLaw (a fee-based provider of access to online legal documents) stop linking to his case.

The Seventh Circuit made short work of the case, ruling March 19 that the First Amendment protects the right to publish (or link to) government records. As the three-judge panel wrote:

The First Amendment privileges the publication of facts contained in lawfully obtained judicial records, even if reasonable people would want them concealed.

The Nieman ruling breaks no new legal ground, but should provide some added reassurance to online publishers when dealing with the increasingly common “you’re ruining my life” call from a disgruntled reader.

For more information about responding to demands to pull down material published online, check out the SPLC’s Guide to Takedown Demands