Erasing the narrative: Student journalists face an increasing amount of takedown requests

When the Daily Illini was faced with the threat of a lawsuit, the staff had to decide whether to succumb to a pragmatic fear and comply with a request — more so, a demand to bend their rules and sense of journalistic ethics — to remove an old letter to the editor condemning gay marriage.

“It wasn’t worth it,” said Daily Illini newspaper publisher Lilyan Levant. “It wasn’t worth the potential — not that we didn’t have a strong legal case to keep it up, necessarily — but it really wasn’t worth it and the content that this person wrote really didn’t add to the dialogue in the first place, so we did take it down.”

An alumnus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had insisted that the student paper remove the letter to the editor from its online archives. Levant declined to detail the content of the letter or discuss its author, saying she didn’t want to potentially upset the “litigious” individual.

Still, she said she wasn’t happy that the content was removed. “To me, the website should replicate the newspaper and if it was content that was in the newspaper and searchable, then it should be searchable online and identified,” she said.

But at the time the letter was submitted, Levant said, there was no explicit policy in place notifying readers that submitted letters may be used at the newspaper’s discretion indefinitely.

The student editors are updating the Illini’s policies to clarify their right to use letters to the editor and to ensure they will not need to remove such content in the future.

In recent years, the everlasting nature of online content has posed new challenges for student journalists as they begin to receive requests for content removal from those wanting to control their own online narrative.

Making the decision

In the fall, a college junior contacted his former high school’s student newspaper asking that a profile about his musical aspirations and talents on the flute be removed.

“Although I continue to pursue music as a career, to me, the article feels outdated and stands as a misrepresentation of myself,” he wrote in an email to the paper at Niles West High School. “If it is at all possible to have the article removed from the Niles West News website, that would be greatly appreciated.”

Niles West News adviser Evelyn Lauer said she receives a couple of these requests every year, often from students near the end of their college careers.

“This particular one made no sense to me,” she said. “I can’t see why if some company, some college, found an article about him when he was in high school [and] was a musician …. why anyone would want that taken down.”

Lauer told the alumnus she would not remove the content. He did not respond, she said.

For Lauer, each request is considered on a case-by-case basis — the publication does not have any hard-and-fast rules.

When a transgender student asked that an article about her transition be removed from the paper’s website, Lauer didn’t know the answer, but the request pulled at her heartstrings.

The student had plans to move to a new school and did not want a feature about her transition available for her new classmates to see.

“In that kind of case, yes, I want her transition to go smoothly and I don’t want Niles News to be the hindrance,” Lauer said. “How can I compare that case to ‘I just want my article down about the fact that I played music?’ You can’t compare those two stories.”

Lauer planned to speak to the transgender student about the value of keeping the article online, but the student dropped the issue and remained at Niles West. The article is still online.

Because online content has the potential to be viewed indefinitely and high schoolers might not yet realize the long-term consequences of their actions, Lauer said she has discouraged her staff from covering certain events entirely.

After a sophomore streaked across the football field, Lauer told her students that covering their uncovered friend might expose him to a streak of embarrassment and shrivel his future opportunities. The staff chose not to report on the story.

For Lauer, the choice to remove content is an ethical and moral one.

“We didn’t run it for ethical reasons because that story would have followed that kid beyond the walls of our school and it looks bad,” Lauer said. “Once you decide to be an online publication, you have [other considerations]. In the world of print, all of that information is there, it’s just easier to access online.”

But certain newsworthy stories are fair game, she said.

When senior Sam Breitberg was arrested in February 2013 on charges of making bomb threats directed toward the school, Niles News ran multiple news articles and included the student’s picture. Breitberg did not respond to interview requests from the Student Press Law Center.

The publication was both criticized and praised in its reader comment section for naming Breitberg in the article, with one comment saying, “The Niles West News has absolutely no respect for an Americans [sic] privacy.”

Since making the threats, Breitberg has graduated, completed wilderness therapy for addiction and works as a program facilitator at a treatment and living facility in Portland, Maine.

But the first result in a Google search for Breitberg is the article on the Niles West News website: “Breitberg Arrested for November’s Bomb Threats.”

Right to be forgotten

The question of online content’s longevity and requests for its removal has expanded far past student media. Since May 2014, Google has considered removing more than 1.2 million links from 354,542 requests from removal, according to the company’s December 8 transparency report.

In some cases, European courts have gotten involved. In 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union ordered Google to remove links to an article about a Spanish national who failed to pay his debts. Currently, the search engine is fighting back against an order from France’s data protection organization, Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés, arguing that Google has not gone far enough in removing search results. While Google removes results from specific country domains within the European Union, such as, the results are still available through

Google did not make a spokesperson available for an interview.

While the United States has never granted a “right to be forgotten,” an overwhelming majority of Americans would support the move, according to a survey from Benenson Strategy Group and SKDKnickerbocker.

Overall, 88 percent of Americans would support requiring search engines to remove results on request, with 52 percent strongly supporting the measure. Only 3 percent of those surveyed would strongly oppose the move.

U.S. courts do recognize some degree of personal privacy that gives people a measure of control over how their names and likenesses are used commercially — as in the landmark 1931 California case of Melvin v. Reid. A California appeals court ruled in favor of a former prostitute, acquitted of murder, when a production company attempted to take her story to the silver screen.

But the judges emphasized that any privacy right “does not exist in the dissemination of news and news events.”

Still, when the Student Press Law Center distributed a survey to several college newspapers, of which 10 responded, seven student editors said they have removed online content for some reason.

Terrence Bynum, the editor-in-chief of The Nevada Sagebrush at the University of Nevada, Reno, said he removed an article about a student being stalked. The student, he said, told the paper that she no longer wanted to be associated on Google with an article identifying her as the victim of a crime.

Bynum said when the article was taken down, it was no longer relevant but being used against a victim of a crime, making the decision seem clearer.

Other student editors responded that they have removed content related to crimes — for example, in an instance where the charges were dropped.

For some editors, the choice to remove content wasn’t driven by a specific request, but the quality of the content. Some papers have removed April Fool’s jokes from their online archives for this reason.

But none of the editors indicated they removed content because of legal requirements.

Student editors might be legally required to remove content that is libelous, a copyright infringement or an invasion of privacy. But content that was legal to post initially does not lose its validity to the passage of time.

Seek truth but minimize harm

In a “choose your own adventure”-style ethics guide for the Online News Association, Louisiana State University Student Media Director Steve Buttry wrote that for a purist, the obvious answer is to leave content online.

“You might, however, want to consider a middle ground: Seldom remove archived content but consider changes or updates on some occasions,” he wrote.

In his guide, Buttry cited two of Poynter’s Guiding Principles for Journalists: “Seek truth and report it as fully as possible” and “Seek publishing alternatives that minimize the harm that results from your actions and be compassionate and empathetic toward those affected by your work.”

For Bynum in Nevada, the truth had been sought and reported, but he felt that publishing the content in a way that was searchable — that could appear on the homepage of a person’s Google results — was causing, not minimizing, harm.

Meanwhile in Europe, Google must keep URLs about serious crimes listed in search results for the name of the perpetrator but remove the same listing from a search for the victim’s name.

The European Data Protection Supervisor, Peter Hustinx, has said he sees the unsolicited attention from search results and other uses of personal information, including the person’s name, as an issue of consent.

“It should be real consent; not only free, informed and specific, but also explicit,” he said in an online discussion.

Still, the Daily Illini’s Levant said she is conflicted when it comes to a right to be forgotten. She said she’s empathetic to former students’ need to move on from their past.

But, she said, “it’s a tough situation because the internet and all our websites have become the publication’s record now.” 

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