Centre County, Pa.

Two judges in Pennsylvania have signed orders demanding two newspapers remove from their archives stories about several court-case defendants, according to a report in one of the affected publications.

One judge immediately promised to rescind the “unpublish” order when the furor over censorship of the publications erupted, and the second judge took that action after meeting with other judges and the county’s prosecutor, a report from the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa., confirmed.

But the search continued for several dozen other orders that apparently included the same censorship instruction for the newspapers.

Reporter Sara Ganim explained the situation involved expungement orders signed by Centre County judges Thomas King Kistler and Bradley P. Lunsford.

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The orders are routine for agencies such as police departments and others that handle court records relating to various cases. The Daily Times report said the orders are used to clear the files when cases against individuals are dismissed, after they complete certain probation or diversion programs or when prosecutors voluntarily withdraw their accusations.

The orders were drawn up for the judges in cases involving clients of defense attorney Joe Amendola, who told the Daily Times he added the names of the Daily Times and the local college publication, The Daily Collegian, to the orders prepared for the judges to sign because he believed his clients’ rights to a clear record trumped the First Amendment.

Kistler told the newspaper he learned a total of 41 such expungement orders were presented to the court by Amendola’s office naming the Daily Times and the Collegian, of Penn State.

The judge said they would be hunted down and changed as needed.

Amendola raised questions, however. “What’s the sense in having your record expunged if anyone can Google you and it comes up?” he told the newspaper.

He said while the First Amendment may offer protections to publications regarding public information, lawmakers should review instances such as those involving his clients.

“Ultimately, this is an issue that needs to be decided by the legislature,” he told the paper. “It’s a much bigger issue than the (Daily Times) and these judges. It’s a countrywide issue.”

Lunsford almost immediately confirmed to the Daily Times that he will sign “an order vacating that provision that details to the (Daily Times) and the Collegian as soon as (the Daily Times attorney) presents the order.”

In communications with the newspaper, the judge explained, “Those provisions should never have been added to our standard expungement orders and were included without the court’s authorization.”

The defense lawyer said, “It was there in black and white. It wasn’t like it was stuck through at the bottom on the page.”

The Daily Times confirmed it carried “short stories” on two of the cases, while the other three were mentioned in the “weekly court report.”

“Facts are facts, and we don’t go back and alter the historical record to suit someone,” Bob Heisse, Daily Times executive editor, said in his own newspaper’s report.

“Yes, we’re in the age of Google but it all comes down to personal responsibility in the first place. That has not changed.”

Melissa Bevan Melewsky, a media lawyer at the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, told the Associated Press publications have no legal obligation to change their archives that are factually correct.

“It’s accurate when it was reported, and that means there’s nothing illegal about it. It’s protected speech,” she said.

The newspaper said the cases covered by the orders were:

  • Ian M. Taft, 24. Prosecutors withdrew counts of aggravated indecent assault and harassment in January under a plea bargain in which he admitted to indecent assault. The counts stemmed from allegations made by a woman at a fraternity in December 2008.

  • Leeshay Bennaim, 25. In this case, sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, marijuana possession and drug paraphernalia counts were withdrawn by prosecutors in a plea agreement in which he admitted to two counts of indecent assault. The case stemmed from a confrontation at a fraternity in July 2007.
  • Chantae C. Cain, 31. The defendant completed a type of diversion program in May following allegations of endangering the welfare of a child.
  • Michael Vincent Young, 21. Prosecutors withdrew marijuana and other charges in a plea bargain in which he admitted one drug-related count.
  • Tanner J. Rogers, 20. Officials say the defendant completed a type of diversion program on counts of assault and harassment.

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