Mugshot Publications: A Tough FOI Issue

This one is a bit difficult for me, until I place the situation into abstract First Amendment doctrine: these sites are acquiring public records, legally, of photos made, then publishing them. Yes, there are ample grounds here to debate the ethics of such publications, and the take-down fees are another matter altogether. But trying to parse broad restrictions on acquiring public records for “commercial use” takes us down a road no capitalist, information-rich economy wants to tread.

The story’s opening:

Mug shot magazines such as Mugly! and Busted! and their online equivalents have become popular in recent years. Some people just can’t resist visiting web sites or paying a buck at a local gas station for a thin tabloid full of pictures — some comical, others weird or just plain creepy — of people who’ve been arrested. Sometimes the photos depict people who were not convicted. Innocent people get caught up in the mix.

The magazine owners defend their product, saying they serve as a deterrent for future criminals, encourage Crime Stoppers tips, promote arrests, and put a face on area crime statistics. Mug shots are public record, they say, pointing to their First Amendment rights to publish the information. Besides, a caveat is included in the fine print: All suspects are innocent until proven guilty….