By: Sarah Tewksbury, Editor-in-chief
In the last month the Free Press has received requests for information to be removed from published online content. In both cases, USM alumni directly contacted me, the editor of this paper, to see if I would be willing to respond to their appeals.
The first inquiry came from a former graduate student at USM who had been interviewed for an article where the headline read, “Use your condom sense.” In 2001 the Free Press did an in depth news story on using condoms during sexual interactions for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and infections and pregnancy and how this applies to USM students. In the article, the individual is quoted about their personal sexual relationship with their partner, as well as their opinion about choosing whether or not to use a condom.
The second request came from a Free Press alum, requesting that a link be removed from the bottom of an article. The link was attached to an article about his current wife and takes internet traffickers to a WordPress site that his wife currently uses as her personal blog. In 2010, the webpage held nude modeling photos that are no longer accessible. However, the subject matter of the article where the link is posted implies that readers will find nude photos if they click on the link.
These are two very different appeals made for distinctively different reasons, yet the sentiment of my indecisive struggle over the requests is the same. An age old question about ethics has been awakened and unfortunately, the decision of what to do is not cut and dry. Here are two individuals who participated in their community at their academic safe haven. One agreed to an interview for an article, while the other worked for the Free Press. They chose to be participants in the USM community through the newspaper.
Sixteen and seven years have passed, respectively, since the condom sense and nude modeling articles were published. The words and actions still stand of those individuals.
My stance on the issue is this. I will not alter the articles. The individuals who consciously decided to engage in discourse did so willingly. They were legal adults in a learning environment who voiced opinions and gave consent to have their information published. The choice to revoke their words is unfortunately not theirs. The editors of the Free Press from years ago, once literally sat where I am sitting and decided to go forward with the content that was published. They embraced their decision and I vow to respect that.
A weakness for human compassion infiltrates my existence. It has permeated my thoughts through deliberation over whether or not to edit the articles. I feel for the person who said “it’s sometimes tempting not to use a condom especially when a woman doesn’t say anything” and who no longer wants that on the internet. I understand their position, in wanting to edit the content. However, my job as a journalist and as an editor is to uphold a standard and set a precedent. I have, too many times, led my staff with my heart rather than my brain. In this moment I choose logic and to set the precedent that an editor will not backtrack and will not change the content of those from the past.
I have seen people try to erase their online footprint. It is difficult and often impossible to completely clear away an online trail. A person’s paths through the interwebs and whether or not they want to hide that is their own choice. Participation in a student newspaper is as equally voluntary as the way someone chooses to spend their time on the internet. The Free Press is a platform for students to learn and experience, yet it is still a real entity with high standards and ethical boundaries. Should I choose to edit the pieces the way I was asked, I would be jeopardizing the integrity of USM’s student newspaper.