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Lasting Impressions

Once upon a time, a nasty tabloid story or unflattering newspaper profile would fade into practical obscurity.  But today, the concept of "practical obscurity" has been rendered practically obsolete by tools like Google and the Wayback Machine, which forever memorialize our past deeds in the Internet's easily accessible and often unforgiving cache.

Seattle lawyer Shakespear Feyissa is the latest, but by no means last, casualty of this development.  As reported by the Seattle Times, Feyissa wants a decade-old article that discusses his never-prosecuted arrest for attempted sexual assault and ensuing suspension removed from his college newspaper's online archives.  The college newspaper editors refused, claiming that compulsory removal was tantamount to censorship. 

Today, bloggers have been weighing in on this story, which after all, has implications for law bloggers as well.  At Above the Law, Kashmir Hill empathizes with Feyissa's plight, but questions whether going after his alma mater was the best approach -- or merely resulted in elevating Feyissa's past to the top of the search engine rankings.  Ultimately, Hill sides with the newspaper, writing that:

the online availability of archived articles can be unfortunate for some people, but it is perhaps an unavoidable consequence of living in the information age. It would not be feasible (or consistent with free speech values) to give people the right to force newspapers -- or, say, gossip blogs -- to erase non-defamatory content about themselves, simply because it paints them in a less-than-positive light..

For Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice the First Amendment "journalistic principles" aren't as clear-cut, particularly where a guy's reputation is ruined and the newspaper itself presented only part of the story by failing to note that all charges against Feyissa were dismissed.  Greenfield concludes that:

The public is not served by perpetuating undeserved harm.  Figure out a way that Feyissa won't have to suffer the taint of student ethical bravado for the rest of his life.

At the Industry Standard, Cyndy Aleo-Carreira notes that journalists are in fact reconsidering whether editors should pull online content, especially when a situation has changed or charges have been dropped.  She also notes that in Japan, for example, crime-related stories are removed within a year of publication.

Feyissa's situation is somewhat unique -- it involves a decade-old story that would have faded into obscurity but for the Internet.  The college paper gains nothing from keeping a stale story online, and indeed, loses some credibility by insisting on doing so without at least offering an update.  But at the same time, I can understand Hill's point -- that making an allowance for Feyissa could potentially make it easier for the next person (say a faculty member)  to demand immediate removal of an unflattering story in the student paper.

Ultimately, we're dealing with a huge a gray area when it comes to online archives. There aren't any simple solutions as far as I can tell.  All we can do is to proceed case by case until we develop some lasting rules about the best way to deal with these kinds of lasting impressions.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on August 18, 2008 at 04:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

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