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Do we have the right to erase the past?
The take-down conundrum leads to debate

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by Lindsay Coppens, Adviser of The Harbinger, Algonquin Regional High School, Northborough, MA

Should what is posted about us (comments, articles, photos, videos) online be under our control? Should what we publish or submit for publication online be under our control despite who owns and controls the website? Do people have the right to demand content be taken down?

Overview
Online publications, both professional and scholastic, inevitably face take-down requests, which can range from polite inquiries to angry demands. Since going online four years ago, our high school news publication has had two take-down requests: one from the subject of an article and the other from a former staff writer who wanted an opinion piece removed. Both had graduated a few years prior and had different reasons for their requests.

The first wanted a news article removed because she now identified as a different gender than she did while the focus of article. The article had nothing to do with the subject’s gender identity—the student had spearheaded a school-wide recycling program that is still in place years later.

In the other case, the former staff member requested his column be removed because he had since changed his opinion. The piece was not on a controversial topic and did not take a particularly unusual stance: he argued that students’ placement in courses they request should be based on merit, not seniority.

Luckily before any request happened the staff already had a policy in place. This policy in the staff manual, however, was not their automatic answer to the requests. But it was a jumping off point for discussion and, in one case, an intense debate among the almost 20 person editorial board.

“The Harbinger does not grant take-down requests of published material, whether the request is from the subject of an article, a former staff member, or some other entity. If a story is inaccurate, the editors will look into the matter and, if needed, publish a correction or update in the form of an editor’s note.”

The policy also ultimately gave the editorial board the confidence and support to hold strong to their decision.

Policy
The policy in the corrections section of the staff manual reads: “The Harbinger does not grant take-down requests of published material, whether the request is from the subject of an article, a former staff member, or some other entity. If a story is inaccurate, the editors will look into the matter and, if needed, publish a correction or update in the form of an editor’s note.”

Application
In each situation, the board gathered to discuss the request. In the first case (from the subject of the recycling article) the board quickly agreed not to take down the article. However, they decided to amend the piece, editing it to change the subject’s first name and pronoun to correlate with how she now identifies. They decided not to emphasize the changes in an editorial note because they thought they did not change the meaning or substance of the article, and more importantly they did not want to further draw attention to the shifting of the subject’s gender. She was satisfied with the edits and decision.

The request from the former staff member was trickier. While only a few of the editors were vaguely familiar with the writer because he graduated a few years earlier, they were initially divided in their responses to the request. Some immediately thought, “Why not? It’s his article; if he wants it removed, remove it.”

Then others brought up the point could a take-down set precedent, and would they remove any article, opinion, or review just because the writer no longer wanted it up?

Even though it’s not a news article, does his column mark a concern that was held by some at the point in time it was written (they said yes), and was it, in a way, part of the record of what happened and what was debated in our school? Does it matter that if it only was published in print, it couldn’t be expunged?

Others asserted that, in a way, print eventually disappears (except for when people hoard old papers) and something online potentially lasts and could easily be found forever.

Back and forth they discussed how years from now they, too, may be embarrassed by what they thought and wrote in high school, while others said, “Yeah, but you and others would also realize you were in high school.” They debated how former staff members could potentially be impacted when looking for jobs or simply if someone googles them.

Others laughed that maybe that gave yet another reason that they should step up their writing game. They discussed who “owns” any work created, submitted, and published by staff members (they agreed, and our editorial policy states, that the publication does).

Exasperated, at least one editor said mid-debate, “Does this really actually matter?” To which the rest resoundingly said, “Yes!”

All of this discussion resulted from a column that until that day none of them knew even existed, buried more than two years deep in the online archives. They all agreed in wondering why the heck this writer really wanted the piece taken down, and ultimately, after this rich debate about ethics, ownership, and control, they decided not to take down the piece.

Exasperated, at least one editor said mid-debate, “Does this really actually matter?” To which the rest resoundingly said, “Yes!”

They did make two suggestions to the former staff member: he could post a comment in response to the piece explaining his change of mind, or he could submit a statement of similar effect that would run with the column as an author’s note.

He was frustrated with the decision, and actually begged again to have the seemingly innocuous column removed, but the Editor in Chief kindly but firmly replied that the publication’s policy was to not honor take-down requests.

Ultimately, he submitted an author’s note: a long statement of apology for his previous opinion and thanks to the guidance department for their help while he was in high school.

Maybe he’s hoping to come back to his alma mater as a guidance intern, or maybe some college friend read it and gave him a hard time about complaining about his high school course schedule. I’ll likely never know, but I do know from analytics that only a handful of people have read that column.

I also know that his take-down request led to an invigorating editorial board debate which helped to reinforce their sense of purpose and clarify why they do what they do.

Final point
Words do have power, as do the scholastic publications that publish those words. The students who run those publications have the power and responsibility to set policy, debate policy, and ultimately make their own decisions as a team.

They and the publication will be stronger for the experience.

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