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 thanthe server they needed to get their Web site back online. It was avictory.

It was the end of a yearlong conflict at Seattle Pacific University betweenthe university administration and the student newspaper ‘ a standoffsymbolized by the server, but entrenched in heavier questions about studentjournalists’ right to control their own content at a private universityand the consequences of journalism in the age of Google.

The root of the conflict was a decade-old story about a student expelledfrom SPU in 1998 after a woman accused him of attempted sexual assault. Now anattorney, Shakespear Feyissa was never charged with a crime, and the womanrecanted her statement. But the allegations stuck with him, Feyissa said,reliably reappearing in the old Falcon article with each Google search ofhis name. The story has no factual inaccuracies, but Feyissa says it emphasizesthe 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 personwalking 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 saidno.

“It’s true, factual, and a matter of public record,”former Editor-in-Chief Chris Durr said in an e-mail. “If journalistsstarted censoring past archives, it would have a chilling effect on oursociety.”

Because SPU is a private school, the administration could order editors totake down content without running afoul of the First Amendment. Instead, VicePresident for Academic Affairs Les Steele said he presented the question ofstewardship to the editors, because student tuition dollars go to fightingFeyissa’s complaints, and if it were a professional newspaper, theFalcon would have to grapple with that cost.

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

“The bigger issue for us is not a freedom of the press issue, butwhether someone’s past errors or mistakes get to be dropped,” hesaid. “Do they forever need to haunt somebody?”

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

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

“… the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean ofStudents and the Assistant Vice President of Technology Services must haveaccess to the server and the web site.”

Administrators say the Feyissa article and the server were completelyseparate issues, but the Falcon editors saw Steele’s memo as athreat to their archives. The Falcon staff knows SPU always has finalsay, Editor-in-Chief Christina Ghan said ‘ but the newspaper could notjust agree to a request that went against the journalism principles taught intheir classes.

“Signing a contract that gave the illusion of consent ‘ that wethought it was OK to take down stories that were accurate and true ‘ wouldbe violating those standards,” Ghan said.

In September 2008 the old server finally sputtered and died. The originalarticle about Feyissa was still available online on at least one blog, but therest of the Falcon‘s stories ‘ new and archived ‘ werenot.

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

History professor Mike Hamilton, who supported the Falcon, said newchallenges presented by the Internet are not a reason to abandon the Americantradition of preserving the historical record published in newspapers. He saidthere are cases when educators may be justified in wanting to remove misguidedstudent content, but the Feyissa article is not such a case.

“There was a whole host of reasons to keep this piece up,” hesaid, “and no good reasons to pull it down other than placating atroublemaker.”

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

“contract,” and required the editors only to affirm the 2008-09Board of Student Media guidelines. Gone was the stipulation allowingadministrators access to the server.

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

Though everyone finally agreed on at least one point ‘ thank goodnessit got resolved ‘ questions about the Falcon‘s onlinearchives still linger. Steele said he hopes there will be no need to revive theissue with future editors, but he would welcome a decision to make the articleinaccessible to Internet search engines. Student government President JoelVanderHoek, who participated in negotiations throughout the year, said he wouldlike to see a policy in place so any requests to alter archived content wouldcome before the Board of Student Media.

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

“I don’t know if I’m going to continue to fightit,” he said, “because at some point you just have to moveon.”