Ask Dr Wobs — Can I publish police information?

Image: CMY Kane via Flickr

Today’s question concerns what “public information” really means — and there’s a lot at stake for a victim of abuse.

Dear Dr. Wobs:

I am a victim of domestic violence. At 10 years healing I am ready to write my book. I’ve hit brick walls over and over while seeking the answer to what should be one very simple question. This question is regarding the use of public records in a true crime story.

I would like to write through public records of the crime, using narrative to fill in the gaps, both hard copy and audiobook. This includes public record audio radio traffic (law enforcement/911/victim/perp/witnesses) and court hearings.

My concern is, how easy it may be for the criminal to find a lawyer to fight this post production? I know a criminal may not make money on his crimes, but can he sue for a book written using his words or voice?

— Name withheld

Public records are publishable

Dear friend:

Let me preface this by saying that I’m not a lawyer, so I’m answering in the capacity of an experienced writer and editor who’s dealt with permissions and potential liability in the past. Consider this an opinion, and I recommend you consult with an attorney for a definitive answer before publishing. (And I urge anyone with a more definitive opinion to add it as a comment on this post.)

I commend you for turning your terrible ordeal into something valuable for others by writing about it. I hope your project is successful, both as a book and for your own psyche.

Regarding ways your abuser could fight this, in my experience there are two types of statements in any piece of nonfiction: facts and opinions.

Facts are either true or false, and a sure protection against libel is the truth. No one can block you for printing what is true. A true statement has to have a source: that source can be an article, an interview you conducted, or a public record. Given that you are publishing information that is in the public record, I can’t see how anyone could stop you.

There are exceptions to what you can publish, but none of them apply here. You can’t publish the name of a victim of sexual violence unless the victim consents, but obviously, as you are the victim, that doesn’t apply. You can’t publish information that damages national security or incites a riot. These are narrow exceptions that don’t apply in this case.

Certainly, if you publish a significant excerpt of copyrighted information, you need to get permission, but in general, public records are not covered by copyright. In any case, no police force is going to bring a copyright case based on public records.

In the past I’ve counseled that writers could check quotes with the sources of the quote. The purpose of this is to maintain good relations with the source and make sure the quote accurately reflects their intent. This is appropriate for business case studies, but not necessary for true crime. You have no interest in maintaining good relations with your abuser and you have access to actual recordings, so quote them as effectively and accurately as you can.

Opinions aren’t subject to verification. If I predict that the Congress will pass rules regulating Facebook, or that the Red Sox stink, those are opinions, not objective facts, and not subject to libel objections.

In your case, I think that the more facts you can use, and the less opinion, the more powerful your book may be. A factual description of what happened to you and how your abuser behaved will be chilling enough. You certainly want to tell your own story and inspire others, but describing your abuser as reprehensible is not as powerful as showing how reprehensibly he acted.

Remember that describing your own emotions, like fear or anger, is not an opinion, it is a fact, which you can verify from your own recollection.

We’ve been in touch and I’ve offered to help you prepare your story and get in touch with an agent. Nothing would please me more than seeing you get vindication and inspire others by telling your own story as powerfully as possible.

Have a question? Send it to Ask Dr. Wobs. If I publish your question, I’ll send you a signed copy of my book.

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One Comment

  1. This intrigues me . . . although you’ve linked into the trendy “Me Too” dialog, there are others as well. . .

    What about court proceedings where you were not allowed to have a camera or cell phone? What about court situations where the police completely screw up and let a criminal go free?

    I recently was witness of breaking and entering, and two crooks carrying stuff out putting it in their car. The police came and caught them in the act. They admitted to breaking into this dwelling multiple times, taking stuff to sell for drugs. The arresting officers let them stand aside while the car was searched. Guess what they were doing???? They just stood there texting on their phones. They could have been warning others, or instructing other partners to hide evidence, etc.

    Those two are now out and back on the streets, after committing the B&E AGAIN.

    Can you write about when the police do not observe correct procedure? Does it have an effect on the court trial?