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Should record follow you forever? (10/26/2011)
By Frances Edstrom

I have a problem — a newspaper problem. I think I have made up my mind what action, or inaction, I should take, but before I do, I’d like to ask our readers what they think.

As our news has become readily available on the Internet, not just on our own website, but by searching the Internet, we have run into a problem — nothing disappears from the easy access of the public. In one way, this is a boon for reporters and term paper writers. We are able, with a stroke of a key, to access old stories of our own, and just about any other news organization’s, going back to the late nineties and early part of the century. In the old days, we would have had to go back in our bound volumes, or searched the microfiche at the Winona County Historical Society.

But in another sense, all things remain in the ether and won’t go away. Where this becomes a problem is mostly confined to the Police Blotter, but for many people, it is a huge problem, especially in a university town.

We get calls from young people who used to live here in their late teens and ran afoul of the law. They may have been cited for underage drinking or disorderly conduct, two misdeeds that are often committed by kids who are newly free of parental authority but not really yet adults. When they do become adults, and go out to look for a job or apply for graduate school, or perhaps become engaged, their prospective employers, graduate schools, and fathers-in-law can easily search the Internet and up it pops…that charge from freshman year in college.

I have fond memories of my college years. Back then, it was rare to be caught by the police for underage drinking, and even rarer for such a bust to appear in the local newspaper. But these days, the police are much more active in curtailing underage drinking and all-around mischief-making by college kids, and the police blotter is full of such charges. I think we all agree that it is a good thing for the welfare of the community at large and also a good learning opportunity for young miscreants.

But that night the first week of school five years ago when your new buddies suggested getting drunk, you probably weren’t thinking of the consequences — either immediate or long-term. Maybe you got caught, your name appeared in the paper, and you had to go to court and pay a fine you couldn’t afford. For most of us that is a one-time occurrence. But with the miracles of the Internet nowadays, that one-time occurrence lasts into perpetuity, following you everywhere you go.

This presents a conundrum. Our judicial system is based on the premise that once you have paid your dues to society for an illegal action, your record is behind you, and you can, in most cases, live as a free person in this society without the blemish following you. But in 2011, the Internet will not allow this judicial premise to operate. You might well be judged the rest of your life for what may have been a minor infraction.

Periodically, and more and more often, we get calls or e-mails from a person who is unable to get a job or get into a graduate program because of what people see on the Internet. These are not heinous crimes against society, and all dues have been paid, but there it is for all to see, following you around like a bad smell.

What do you think? Should newspapers erase these police records from the Internet after a certain period of time, giving the miscreant the benefit of the doubt? Or should this information appear on the Internet into the ages, so that our great-grandchildren will be able to read them?

With advanced technology come some great things, some bad things, and then some aggravating things, such as this question. Tell me what you think at winpost@winonapost.com. Include your name and address so that we will know you are who you say you are, but we promise that if we quote you we will not use any identifying information unless you specifically say we can do so.

Mary K McMahon, R.I.P.

Our sympathies to the family of Mary K, especially to her daughter Sally, who was our daughter’s best friend all through grade school. Through her we got to know Mary K and Bob. Mary K was a sassy, fun, hardworking mother who always welcomed her kids’ friends to her house. On several occasions, when I had no child care, Mary K also offered to care for our daughter’s younger sister. A favorite family story about Mary K is the time she was caring for our daughters after school and the younger one was racing around the house like a nut. Long before other mothers, Mary K, who had a nursing degree, caught on to the problem. “Who gave that child candy!” she shouted throughout the house, sending all the kids into gales of laughter. Thanks, Mary K! 


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