Western Washington University proposal would have student publications pull ‘damaging’ content from archives

As newspaper archives go online, long-forgotten and probably regrettable college escapades are seeing the light of day thanks to the Internet. If there’s one downside to search engine optimization, it’s receiving that call from someone requesting the paper remove a story from many staff turnovers ago.

Freshman antics certainly aren’t the only things people want removed for fear potential employers might see them. Political views aired in a quote, a police blotter item, something scandalous from a former sex columnist — there’s no shortage of content people wish they could hide from the all-seeing eyes of Google.

But does that mean a school can tell its publications to amend online archives when “damage to professional reputation can be shown”?

That’s one proposed solution introduced by a student senator at Western Washington University.

Next week the student senate will decide whether to adopt a resolution supporting students and alumni who want professionally damaging content pulled from student publications’ online archives.

“If after one, but no more than ten, calendar years from original publication date, a student or alumni makes a formal request of the publication in question for removal or alteration their request shall be honored,” the resolution reads.

The resolution came with a letter of context, which ends:

“It has been pointed out that the redaction of true statements does not happen in ‘real world’ publications. By design, student life is not ‘real life.’ It is more of a petri dish or practice run. Part of the collegiate experience is trying new things and, often, making mistakes. As an institution we should have a policy of mercy for these students.”

Gina Cole, editor-in-chief of The Western Front student newspaper, addressed the student senate Wednesday alongside the editors of The Planet and Klipsun publications and the chair of the Student Publications Council and journalism department.

Cole said the resolution would have to be approved by the board of directors before it’s adopted. More importantly, student publications answer to the Student Publications Council and its charter, not student government, so the resolution is likely unenforceable.

“This can’t really go anywhere,” she said. “The resolution itself doesn’t have any weight or any ability to change our policy, but we did take the opportunity to come to the meeting where they were discussing the resolution because we wanted to not just let them know they couldn’t enforce it, but to let them know it was wrong fundamentally.”

Mike Hiestand, consulting attorney with the Student Press Law Center, said the resolution appears to be “toothless,” though student government allocates money to the newspaper. Hiestand said there would be legal barriers if student government tries to control funding as a way to enforce the resolution.

Cole said about 35 students, staff and faculty attended the meeting that started with a discussion of the proposal but turned into a question and answer opportunity focusing on general journalism practices.

“They weren’t so much questions as they were complaints sort of formed into questions,” Cole said.

Cole said she and the other panelists spent much of the time talking about how student publications operate — Why can’t publications show sources articles before they print? Under what circumstances are articles taken down? How many instances of plagiarism have there been? Cole said it seemed like their professionalism was in question.

“I don’t think we have as big a credibility problem as we’re perceived to have,” she said. “I think people see one or two bigger or more obvious mistakes and apply that to our reputation as a whole, which frankly they can and should but I don’t think that should translate to resolutions that limit us as press.”

The student senate will vote on Wednesday, Nov. 9 on whether to adopt the policy.

For more information on what to do when someone demands a takedown, check out the SPLC’s legal guide, Responding to Takedown Demands.