A version this blog was originally published on sprc.org on Sept. 20, 2017.
As more student newspapers move to digital platforms, editors and advisers are facing a new and insidious form of post-publication censorship: takedown requests.
The requests usually go something like this: “I was a student at [fill in name] high school [fill in number] years ago, and I was interviewed/wrote a story/was in a photo/made a comment that I regret now. I don’t want this showing up in Google searches. Please remove this story from your site.”
This hypothetical student may not know it, but her request is part of a much larger conversation about honoring individual privacy versus preserving the historical record.
In 2014, Europe’s highest court ruled individuals have a “right to be forgotten” that may supersede the right to preserve and share information via search engines like Google. This court ruling is controversial and would probably not happen in the United States; the First Amendment has strong protections for free speech and press that would likely prevent this kind of revisionism, but that doesn’t stop individuals from wishing they could take back the past.
Lawyer Mike Godwin, creator of the tongue-in-cheek “Godwin’s law,” has “been thinking longer than just about anyone else about why people can sometimes behave awfully on the Internet,” according to the Washington Post. He is skeptical that we have more “right to be forgotten” online than we do in everyday life:
“There’s this fantasy that these people have that they have control over what they say or do online,” Godwin writes. “But if I say ‘I love you’ to someone, I can’t take it back. I have no control over what happens to it after that. Words have effect in the real world that you can’t take back. That’s language’s eerie power.”
“What you see underlying the ‘right to be forgotten’ is the idea that somehow there’s a sense of yourself out in the world that you can draw boundaries around,” Godwin continues. “That, I think, is fantasy. I sympathize with the fantasy. I think it’s a natural human impulse. But the fact is that we’re connected in ways that require us to think profoundly about how we present ourselves. And we’re never going to achieve the kind of control over that that one might want in an ideal world.”
“What you see underlying the ‘right to be forgotten’ is the idea that somehow there’s a sense of yourself out in the world that you can draw boundaries around,” he continues. “That, I think, is fantasy. I sympathize with the fantasy. I think it’s a natural human impulse. But the fact is that we’re connected in ways that require us to think profoundly about how we present ourselves. And we’re never going to achieve the kind of control over that that one might want in an ideal world.”
On one level, I have sympathy for takedown requests. It’s true that we do a lot of growing in our high school years, and we do things we later regret. You only have to look at the growing number of articles and warnings about your “digital footprint” to realize this is a big issue in the Information Age. Unlike an op-ed published in a printed school paper, which is difficult to track down, an op-ed in an online paper is easily searchable. But so are a person’s social media posts and posts where others have tagged her. Our digital footprint isn’t going away, and part of being a successful 21st century citizen is learning to manage it.
I think we also need to help our students understand it’s all right to change our minds over time. Rather than insisting we have never held any other opinion or never made a mistake, we should embrace how our ideas and perspectives shift as we get older and have more experiences. Isn’t it healthier to acknowledge our past beliefs and mistakes rather than deny them? If a college admissions officer or future employer brings up an op-ed you wrote in high school, why not say, “Yes, I had a very different view back then than I do now. Let me tell you about how and why my viewpoint has changed since then.”
As sympathetic as I am to the impulse to “take it back,” I can’t support revisionist history. Part of the job of journalism is to provide a historical record — a true account of events and people from a point in time. Professional papers certainly won’t erase past articles, whether print or digital, and scholastic publications shouldn’t either except, perhaps, in extraordinary circumstances.
So how should we deal with these requests when they arise? JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee outlines ethical guidelines, staff manual processes and a list of suggestions and resources, one of which is this list of three takedown models for your staff manual. Using these guidelines, I worked with my editors at The Archer School for Girls to craft a takedown policy for our manual that errs on the side of preserving the historical record unless the potential harm to the person making the request outweighs all other factors. This is one possible model staffs could use as they begin to develop their own policies.
Staff Manual Model: Takedown Requests
The Oracle is a digital news source, but it is still part of Archer’s historical record. The Oracle’s primary purpose is to publish the truth, as best we can determine it, and be an accurate record of events and issues from students’ perspectives. Writers and editors use the 11 “Put Up” steps before publication to ensure the validity, newsworthiness and ethics of each article. For these reasons, the editorial board will not take down or edit past articles except in extraordinary circumstances.
If someone requests a takedown, the board will consider the following questions and actions:
“And though she be but little, she is fierce!” -A Midsummer Night’s Dream