Fighting the past: Private school's editors battled with school for right to keep archive story online

When the box finally arrived, Falcon editors knew it was more than the server they needed to get their Web site back online. It was a victory.

It was the end of a yearlong conflict at Seattle Pacific University between the university administration and the student newspaper ' a standoff symbolized by the server, but entrenched in heavier questions about student journalists' right to control their own content at a private university and the consequences of journalism in the age of Google.

The root of the conflict was a decade-old story about a student expelled from SPU in 1998 after a woman accused him of attempted sexual assault. Now an attorney, Shakespear Feyissa was never charged with a crime, and the woman recanted her statement. But the allegations stuck with him, Feyissa said, reliably reappearing in the old Falcon article with each Google search of his name. The story has no factual inaccuracies, but Feyissa says it emphasizes the accusations against him, and hurts his business and personal relationships.

"I didn't want this incomplete and untrue statement online, because I don't get a chance to explain to everybody," he said. "People see that and then make their own opinion, and as a black person walking around, people think I'm already a criminal anyways."

Tired of taking Feyissa's calls demanding the story be taken down, administrators first asked the Falcon about removing the article in 2005. They asked editors in following years, and each time Falcon editors said no.

"It's true, factual, and a matter of public record," former Editor-in-Chief Chris Durr said in an e-mail. "If journalists started censoring past archives, it would have a chilling effect on our society."

Because SPU is a private school, the administration could order editors to take down content without running afoul of the First Amendment. Instead, Vice President for Academic Affairs Les Steele said he presented the question of stewardship to the editors, because student tuition dollars go to fighting Feyissa's complaints, and if it were a professional newspaper, the Falcon would have to grapple with that cost.

It was also a question of ethics and balancing freedom of the press with other community values, said Don Mortenson, vice president for business and finance.

"The bigger issue for us is not a freedom of the press issue, but whether someone's past errors or mistakes get to be dropped," he said. "Do they forever need to haunt somebody?"

The editors still said no, so the article was online in spring 2008 when editors realized the server hosting their Web site was dying. They wrote proposals for a replacement. Editors were concerned when a memo Steele sent to lay out guidelines for a new server or off-campus hosting said that all parties must reaffirm SPU as the publisher and final authority on Falcon content.

"We ask that all parties indicate their affirmation of this by signing a contract," the memo said in regard to off-campus hosting.

"... the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Students and the Assistant Vice President of Technology Services must have access to the server and the web site."

Administrators say the Feyissa article and the server were completely separate issues, but the Falcon editors saw Steele's memo as a threat to their archives. The Falcon staff knows SPU always has final say, Editor-in-Chief Christina Ghan said ' but the newspaper could not just agree to a request that went against the journalism principles taught in their classes.

"Signing a contract that gave the illusion of consent ' that we thought it was OK to take down stories that were accurate and true ' would be violating those standards," Ghan said.

In September 2008 the old server finally sputtered and died. The original article about Feyissa was still available online on at least one blog, but the rest of the Falcon's stories ' new and archived ' were not.

Concern spread among the faculty after the Seattle Times published a story about the situation, and a number of faculty members started asking the Falcon how they could help fund a new, stipulation-free server.

History professor Mike Hamilton, who supported the Falcon, said new challenges presented by the Internet are not a reason to abandon the American tradition of preserving the historical record published in newspapers. He said there are cases when educators may be justified in wanting to remove misguided student content, but the Feyissa article is not such a case.

"There was a whole host of reasons to keep this piece up," he said, "and no good reasons to pull it down other than placating a troublemaker."

Finally, with the school year waning and faculty concern mounting, the Falcon and the administration reached a compromise in late March. It sounded like the same old ultimatum: Sign this document if you want to get the server. But this time it was an "agreement" instead of a

"contract," and required the editors only to affirm the 2008-09 Board of Student Media guidelines. Gone was the stipulation allowing administrators access to the server.

So after nearly a year of frustration on both sides, Ghan signed the agreement. The Falcon successfully presented a new server proposal to the finance committee the next day, and the Falcon was publishing online again in early April.

Though everyone finally agreed on at least one point ' thank goodness it got resolved ' questions about the Falcon's online archives still linger. Steele said he hopes there will be no need to revive the issue with future editors, but he would welcome a decision to make the article inaccessible to Internet search engines. Student government President Joel VanderHoek, who participated in negotiations throughout the year, said he would like to see a policy in place so any requests to alter archived content would come before the Board of Student Media.

And though Feyissa still disagrees with leaving the story online, even he is weary of the battle.

"I don't know if I'm going to continue to fight it," he said, "because at some point you just have to move on."

reports, Spring 2009