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Takedown requests:
when the right to preserve history
conflicts with the desire to forget it QT13

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Blog by Kristin Taylor

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.​

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:

  1. Does the content contain libel, inaccurate information, unwarranted invasion of privacy, obscenity or copyright infringement? If so, the editor-in-chief will remove this unprotected speech and add a corrections statement at the end of the article, as per the “Regarding Errors” policy. If, after careful investigation and discussion, the editorial board determines that the article is too heavily saturated with this unprotected speech to maintain, the board may decide to take the article down entirely. The board must come to consensus to make this decision.
  2. Does the content harm the requester so significantly that it outweighs all other factors? The editorial board will investigate this claim and weigh it against the value of an unaltered historical record. The board must come to consensus before taking down an article for this reason.
  3. If the content does not meet either of these extraordinary circumstances, it will remain posted.

Regardless of the outcome, the Editor-in-Chief will respond in writing to the request explaining the board’s action(s) and rationale for the final decision.

 

Guideline: Journalists may be asked to remove online content for any number of reasons. Just because content is unpopular or controversial does not mean a media staff should comply with such requests. When journalists meet their goal of producing consistent, responsible journalism, they likely will choose to leave the content in question online even in the face of criticism.

All media – including student media – provide a historical record of issues, events and comments. As such, content should not be changed unless there are unusual circumstances.

Another alternative to takedown demands would be to create publishing standards we would call Put Up criteria. Train student editors and staffers in why and how something should be published so takedown requests are avoided.

Key point: Source’s remorse, writer’s second-thoughts or other rethinking of existing information accessible to employers, colleges or simply to friends sometimes causes uncomfortable questions for student staffs.

What guidelines should student media staffers adapt or create that fulfills the role of historical-record, forum and source of information?

Stance: We feel there are no quick and easy answers, but plenty of ethical room for discussion and implementation of workable guidelines (not policy) that can withstand the test of time.

Reasoning/suggestions

  • In some cases, student editors may take down a story because they determine the content warrants a one-time exception (such as fabrication or to protect a source).
  • Reporters may elect to do a follow-up story.
  • If student editors choose to remove content, they should publish a note on the site explaining when and why the content was removed.
  • Takedown criteria should be outlined and explained in the staff manual.
  • Create guidelines and procedures to ensure students only post information and images they feel meet standards of responsible journalism: Put Up guidelines.

ResourcesTakedown demands? A roadmap of choices Scholastic Press Rights Committee

Respond to Takedown Demands, Student Press Law Center

Setting Criteria Before the Requests Come, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee

10 Steps to a Put-Up Policy, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee

Audio: Takedown Requests, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee, Press Rights Minute

5 Ways News Organizations Respond to ‘Unpublishing’ Requests, The Poynter Institute

Related: These points and other decisions about mission statement, forum status and editorial policy should be part of a Foundations Package that protects journalistically responsible student expression.

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