Tom Suozzi, Nassau County’s Executive, must have thought this was a great idea, given the outcry that invariably followed the car crashes and deaths involving a drunk driver. People complained that “something must be done.” So what he did was create the “Wall of Shame.” It was a wall with the photograph and identity of each person arrested for drunk driving. Not convicted, but arrested. Note the name. It’s purpose is to shame those accused of DWI.
You would think that Tom would have somebody whispering in his ear that putting up photos of people not yet convicted had its issues, but the word around Nassau County is that Tom does not care to hear from people who disagree with him. If Tom thinks it’s a good idea, then it’s a good idea.
Alexandra Bursac, however, didn’t think it was a good idea. Neither did her lawyer, Brian Griffin. Together, they decided to do something about it. Bursac was arrested for DWI, with the officer claiming she was .01 over the line. She disagreed, and pleaded not guilty. But there she was, picture and all, on the Wall of Shame.
Interestingly, the Wall of Shame wasn’t a mere physical wall, but a virtual wall. It was put on the internet for all to see. Worse still, once on the internet, it was there in virtual perpetuity, shaming Bursac for her arrest forever and ever, even if she prevailed against the charges.
Adding irony to the mix, Newsday, which was editorially critical of the Wall to shame people who were “innocent until proven guilty” was the primary source of the Wall of Shame’s exposure. Not only did Newsday put the Wall on its website, but it had links to the Wall of Shame all over the place. And refused to take it down, despite the criticism of shaming the innocent.
Yesterday, Supreme Court Justice William LaMarca agreed with Bursac.
[P]osting Alexandra Bursac’s photo punishes her in a way not authorized by the law. And because of the permanence of the Internet, it imposes an inappropriate penalty by exposing her to “limitless and eternal notoriety.”
Now comes the interesting part. The County’s knee-jerk reaction to the decision was exactly what one would expect.
County Attorney Lorna Goodman said her office will not remove Bursac’s name and photo, or anyone else’s, from the “Wall of Shame.” She said the county will appeal the decision, which will automatically put the judge’s order to remove the name and photo on hold.
“We are disappointed at the decision of the judge,” Goodman said. “The decision appears to be based on a novel theory that publication on the Internet is different from traditional publication, a theory for which he cites no support. The decision ignores the reality of the digital age.”
County Executive Thomas Suozzi insisted that the Wall of Shame has deterred people from driving drunk, and he vowed to appeal State Supreme Court Justice William LaMarca’s decision. But in the meantime, he said he feels it is wise to remove the names to protect the county from a torrent of lawsuits.
“The decision [to post people's names before they were convicted] was made based upon the information we had at the time,” he said. “But we think this is a prudent course of action.”
Notwithstanding Suozzi’s decision to take down the Wall of Shame, Newsday wasn’t to be cowed, whether by reason or the order of a judge.
Newsday.com has been posting the names and photos from the Wall of Shame since the county began releasing them after Memorial Day weekend. “Our plan is to continue to mirror the county’s presentation of what officials label the ‘Wall of Shame,’ said Newsday Editor John Mancini. “As we have in the past, we will post photos of people charged with a crime that are provided to us by authorities on Newsday.com.”
Freedom of the press is a fine thing, an important thing, to the perpetuation of democracy. But there is nothing in the First Amendment that forbids the use of wisdom. Shaming the innocent is bad when Nassau County does it. It’s bad when Newsday does it. Tom Suozzi has wised up. Maybe Newsday should give it a second thought as well.