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Students speak out about cancellation of SGA elections

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MAKING A DIFFERENCE Series

Students at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, DC, spoke out when a faculty committee chose officers for the upcoming student government offices instead of holding an election. That misstep caught the attention of The Beacon staff who wrote about the injustice in several issues. By the end to the year, the coverage in The Beacon resulted in a reversal of the decision,  thus reinstating the election process to the school.

Adviser, Mary Stapp shared “In our September issue The Wilson Beacon wrote about the school’s administration changing the process of Student Government Association elections, including an editorial on p. 4. Instead of having students elect their leaders, administrators decided to appoint leaders themselves. Before the Beacon reported on it, no one knew how SGA officers had been [s]elected. In our April issue, Opinions Editor Christina Harn reflected on the “Lack of Leadership Opportunities” (p.5). Our June issue reported the resulting “SGA Elections Reinstated,” after the principal widely acknowledged the importance of the student voice and the meaning of democracy.”

See the packages the Beacon staff shared in the September and April issues.

Student voice in publications and student government makes a difference in schools. The Beacon staff made a difference by bringing the process of student elections back to the students instead of a faculty committee.

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A newsroom guide for handling online comments

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“The New York Times and The Washington Post have the two smartest teams of lawyers and editors in the world, and they’ve come to opposite conclusions. The Times is a review first/post later system and The Post is a post first/takedown later system. So there’s no industry standard or consensus.”  – Frank LoMonte, Student Press Law Center

• Basically, there are two approaches for moderation of online comments:
– Post first and then take comments down if they are inappropriate
– Moderate and only post those that meet criteria

A third option, of course, is to allow no comments at all, but that runs counter to media serving as a forum for public expression.

For the most part, the same principles apply to handling comments as with handling letters to the editor in print or guest commentary in broadcast or online, including verification of sources and information. Once the decision is made to publish user comments or responses, label them clearly, keeping in mind your journalistic credibility and commitment to accuracy.

• How to handle inappropriate comments  (*see model policy below)
Pulling down posted comments looks like censorship. And if you allow comments to be posted without moderating them first, you create the potential of incorrect and legally dangerous comments being captured/cached and available forever. Why publish something that jeopardizes your media’s ability to serve your community and then remove it after complaints or realizing it’s inappropriate?  It’s all about the policy you establish, the atmosphere you seek to create on your site and your ability and willingness to enforce your rules and standards.  Remember, if you edit comments and change the intent or meaning you are legally responsible for their content, according to Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act.

• Criteria for comments
Just as you need a policy for letters to the editor, you need a policy for determining when you will allow comments.  Consider: Staffs can be responsible for the content of comments posted by others on their sites despite some special legal protections that exist in the online arena.

Ideally, those making comments will use real, verifiable names and email addresses.  If they don’t, commenters could remain anonymous if the student editor knows their real names. Approving content ahead of time is not prior review because it is done by the student staff, not school officials. Anonymous comments should be taken down after a short time

Use of real names is an ethical issue. Knowing who a person is can give comments clarity, meaning and context, and add credibility. Because part of the impact of using comments is about creating community where all can participate and feel safe, knowing identities generates trust in the commenter and the comment. Search engines pick up comments as if they were content, so you have an obligation not to spread falsehood; information must be verified

• Be upfront and transparent about your policy and explain it thoroughly
Student media can establish a forum by setting ground rules of prior approval/rejection without changing content unless cleared with the author. Do not edit or revise comment content. Revisions should be made by the author.

Once posted, comments or information should not be removed for transparency, accuracy and reality in terms of establishing a historical record.

• Establish a procedure for handling comments
Appoint an online editor and staff to vet comments (which means training for that staff on how to handle comments). Online comments should be signed with verifiable addresses and IDs that are verifiable. Require real names or IDs known by student editors or identify who will verify the names and identification before publication

Study other media, including The New York Times, The Poynter Institute and The Washington Post, for guidelines as part of the process of setting up a policy. Decide what is permissible in comments ahead of time and clearly publicize the criteria. An example would be no personal attacks. Also publish a statement that a student “editor” will contact the poster for information, clarification, to have writer correct grammar, etc.

* A model policy section for handling comments might look like this, with content adapted from The Washington Post , The Poynter Institute and introductory wording modeled on The New York Times:

Model Comment Policy

We moderate comments to enable readers to share, without abusing others, informed and intelligent views that enhance the marketplace of ideas, focused to the topic of discussion not the presenter.

By posting comments:
1.We recommend use of real names for commenting. We will allow anonymous just like we allow anonymous sources provided we have verified the commenter’s identity.
2.You agree not to submit inappropriate content. Inappropriate content includes any content (as defined by the Student Press Law Center) that:
• Infringes upon or violates the copyrights, trademarks or other intellectual property rights of any person
• Is potentially libelous or defamatory
• Is obscene, pornographic, or sexually explicit
• Violates a person’s right to privacy
• Violates any local, state, national, or international law
• Contains or advocates illegal or violent acts
• Degrades others on the basis of gender, race, class, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or other classification
• Is predatory, hateful, or intended to intimidate or harass
• Contains advertising or solicitation of any kind
• Misrepresents your identity or affiliation
• Impersonates others

3.You agree you are fully responsible for the content that you submit. You will promptly remove any content that you have posted should you discover that it violates these rules or that it is otherwise inappropriate.

See more for the complete package:
Evaluating legal demands
Evaluating ethical choices
Decision models
10 steps to a “Put Up” policy
Resources

 

 

 

 

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Resources

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Resources for the guidelines:
• Responding to takedown demands
http://www.splc.org/knowyourrights/legalresearch.asp?id=111
• Responding to takedown demands
http://www.splc.org/pdf/takedowndemand.pdf
• Responding to takedown demands
http://studentpressblogs.org/nspa/responding-to-takedown-requests/
• 5 ways news organizations respond to ‘unpublishing requests
http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/top-stories/104414/5-ways-news-organizations-respond-to-unpublishing-requests/
• Post grapples with how to ‘unpublish’ and correct the record
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/06/AR2010080604341.html
• The ethics of unpublishing
http://www.caj.ca/?p=1135

See more for the complete package:
Evaluating legal demands
Evaluating ethical choices
Decision models
10 steps to a “Put Up” policy
Handling online comments

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Ethical principles and considerations

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If your students have to make takedown decisions, the legal advice is essential. Just as important are the various ethical possibilities, too.

While the legal principles are relatively clear, ethical principles might not be.. In ethical decision-making, there is topically no right or wrong but primarily right v. right decsision. Such decisions might depend on the mission and goals of your student media.

These points might help in ethical decision-making:
• The default position is not to take down anything newsworthy or accurate at the time of original publication unless there are clear, definably correct legal reasons: libel, unwarranted invasion of privacy, obscenity. Everything else stays. The reason: if someone on the staff thought it good enough to post once, it should stay.  Maybe Put Up guidelines would help students avoid later issues. If your material is legally unsupportable or demonstrably inaccurate, you would likely, for justifiable journalistic reasons, want to change it.
• Original posts and articles also have historical/reality value. Good enough to go up, good enough to stay up. In Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s Elements of Journalism, the first obligation is to publish, no matter the platform, the truth as best we know it. Second-guessing that later, for whatever reason, can set a nasty precedent of what the historical record is. Considering Takedown demands/requests might also start students on a slippery slope of second-guessing and ultimately self-censorship.
• If there is a one-time reason, like something later proven to be untrue, then the student staff could make an exception. These exceptions would, by definition, be rare.
• Lastly, just because students agree to take down an item, does not cleanse the Web of the information, image or information.
• Some compromises that can be taken, according to The Online Privacy Blog include:
–Sunsetting that retires certain kinds of information (like arrests) after a certain preset period
–Block the article from search engines
–Make names anonymous or remove  them
–Unpublish the entire article if the information is “old, irrelevant or dangerous to an individual’s privacy or safety”
–Add an update for clarification

See more for the complete package:
Evaluating legal demands
Decision models
10 steps to a “Put Up” policy
Resources
Handling online comments

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Put Up recommendations

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Developing a Put Up Policy
Sometimes the best way to think about a Takedown Policy is to devise a system of proactive steps to avoid needing to take information down. Here are 10 steps to take before publishing:
• Independently confirm information to be used for accuracy, context, perspective, truth and coherence
• Determine whether sources used are credible and representative of diverse and knowledgeable viewpoints
• Clearly attribute all information as needed for clarity and authority
• Avoid anonymous sources except in situations where they are the best source and identities need protection
• Determine whether sources used have conflicts of interest
• Ensure your information has gone through a vetting process with editors
• If using teens or young people as sources, do so with an understanding of minimizing harm as well as publishing truthful and contextual information
• If using social media sources, be sure information is attributed, accurate, in context and used legally and ethically
• Train and background reporters in legal and ethical issues
• If using crowd generated content, clearly indicate the source and ensure its credibility
• Be skeptical of any information you cannot verify

See more for the complete package:
Evaluating legal demands
Evaluating ethical choices
Decision models
Resources
Handling online comments

read more

Legal considerations for responding to takedown demands

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by Mark Goodman
When a student news organization receives a demand to remove content from its website, consider a handful of legal considerations as well journalistic and ethical ones.

The first question should always be, what’s the reason for the demand?
• Is it based on a claim the content in question was factually inaccurate and damaging to someone’s reputation (in other words, libelous)?
• Or is it based on the fact the content in question is embarrassing to someone and reveals information they would rather not have exposed (an invasion of privacy)?
• Or perhaps the claim is the material infringes on someone else’s copyright?
• Maybe the complaint is the person making the demand just doesn’t like the content – it’s offensive to them or conflicts with their perspective.

The last of these four common reasons for a takedown demand is the easiest to dispose of, at least from a legal perspective.  A news organization never has an obligation to remove content simply because someone doesn’t like it.  Unless the individual making the demand is alleging an identifiable person has suffered a personal injury as a result of the content, there typically is no risk of a legal claim to be concerned about.

If the claim is “you’ve infringed my copyright,” the demand should be taken seriously.  Did the student news medium obtain permission to use the content before publication?  Or is the use of the content what the law refers to as a “fair use?” (Generally, using a small part of a copyrighted work for news or commentary about the copyright owner of that work will be considered a fair use.  For example, using an image from an album cover to illustrate a review of that album will always be considered a fair use.)  Remember, the fact you didn’t intend to infringe a copyright or that you didn’t understand what copyright protected is not a defense.  If your use represents a copyright infringement, your obligation is to take the work down.  The Student Press Law Center has excellent resources available about fair use and copyright infringement.  You can find them here: http://www.splc.org/knowyourrights/legalresearch.asp?maincat=6

Many takedown demands are the result of individuals believing their privacy has been invaded.  Even if the content has been up for years, they may believe the fact they face consequences from it now (being asked about it by prospective employers, for example) is justification for demanding its removal from your website.  The good news, legally, is if the content was not an unwarranted invasion of privacy at the time it was published, it can’t be one subsequently.
• For example, if your students accurately report a student was arrested and charged with vandalizing the school, that content is protected from an invasion of privacy claim. Accurate reporting about allegations of crime and other legal matters will almost never meet the requirements for an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
• But, if the information did constitute a legally actionable invasion of privacy at the time of publication, takedown is a necessary step. For more information in this area of the law, see: http://www.splc.org/knowyourrights/legalresearch.asp?id=29

Concerns about damage to reputation are one of the frequent justifications raised by those who demand content be taken down.  Using the example above, a student arrested and charged with the crime of vandalizing school property may raise the fact he was subsequently found not guilty of the crime or perhaps even the charges were dropped.
• Again, if the information was accurate and not legally actionable at the time of publication, new facts won’t remove the legal protection for having published it in the first place.
• And if the complaint isn’t about inaccuracy but rather just about embarrassment, there is an easy defense: truth.  The publication of factually accurate information at the time of publication can never be the basis of a successful libel suit.
• For more information about libel, see http://www.splc.org/knowyourrights/legalresearch.asp?id=27

One other important legal consideration when responding to a takedown demand, especially when the requested remedy is just to remove a part of a story or other content: you may be opening the door to potential lawsuits by others.  Lawsuits for privacy invasion and libel must be filed within a set time frame after the content was first published (1-2 years in most states). This is called the statute of limitations. Most courts have concluded that the clock starts running on the date the content was first posted online, not when the people mentioned in the story first learned of it.  *But if you materially edit a story that appears on online, that can start the statute of limitations clock all over again.

The best legal advice: only respond to takedown demands when you have a solid journalistic or legal reason for doing so.  But when you have published legally unprotected content, you can lessen the likelihood of being sued or a significant damage award by removing the offending content from your website.

The Student Press Law Center offers a detailed analysis of responding to takedown demands.  You can find that here: http://www.splc.org/pdf/takedowndemand.pdf

Mark Goodman is the Knight Chair of Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University and the former Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center.

See more for the complete package:
Evaluating ethical choices
Decision models
10 steps to a “Put Up” policy
Resources
Handling online comments

 

read more