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At colleges, some alumni want to erase the past

It’s a pretty typical call for Thomas Kaplan to get.

Often on the other side of the receiver is a politically active Yale alum who made a few charged partisan comments during his or her days in New Haven, Conn. Sometimes Kaplan, the editor in chief of the Yale Daily News, hears from gay rights activists who made headlines in college, and now prefer to keep a lower profile.

“I have definitely gotten requests from people saying, ‘I’m applying to a law firm and you Google my name and the first thing you see is me getting drunk at my favorite club,’” Kaplan says.

Whatever their particular grievance—whether they yell, beg or cry—the request is always the same: make that part of my life disappear. They beg him to take the story out of the paper’s electronic archives.

Kaplan’s answer is also always the same: No.

“It is a living history of our time and our generation and it would make me nervous to try to modify how stories are presented to cater to individual requests,” Kaplan says.

Kaplan’s fight is going on all over the country between college newspapers and some school alumni. With the proliferation of Google and the Internet, people who appeared in their college papers years ago are regretting their candor or recklessness, especially when anyone with a laptop can find those long-forgotten misdeeds in a matter of seconds.

“No one made this request back in the old paper volume days,” says Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va. “The hardest question is the judgment call whether there are some peccadilloes that are so minor that the paper is sympathetic.”

Craig Whitney, the standards editor of the New York Times, said in an e-mail that his newspaper does not alter the historical record of what was published, “except to add corrections of mistakes (and digitally, that means correcting the mistake and appending the correction).”

Such stories can have consequences for the people who were in them. Elrond Lawrence, a California-based human resources expert, says drug arrests and other incidents are important factors in evaluating a candidate for a job. College papers, he says, are useful in helping employers develop an outline of a prospect’s history.

“If somebody was passed out drunk at their frat party and it somehow made it into the paper because they broke the rules, that’s public knowledge,” says Lawrence, who edited his college paper at California State University-San Bernardino. “If it’s a job with a lot of face-to-face interaction, they’ll certainly weigh it heavily.”

Eric Roper, the editor in chief of the GW Hatchet, the independent student newspaper for George Washington University, says he understands what is at stake for former students.

“Do I, when I hang up the phone, think about that person’s life and feel sympathy for them? Sure,” Roper says. “But I have to be steadfast in how I deal with it.”

Roper, like several predecessors at the GW Hatchet, learned in his first year that he could expect a call from a former “high-profile athletic employee” whom he declined to name, asking that he remove a story about the employee’s departure. And, like his predecessors, Roper said no.

But in certain extreme circumstances, like the safety of a reporter or subject, editors should have the ability to make concessions, says Kelly McBride, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla. McBride says under those limited circumstances it might be appropriate to change the headline of a story so it is not as recognizable by search engines, as long as a note is attached to the story in the archive explaining the change and why it was made. Still, she says, the threshold should be high.

“It can’t be a case where somebody is a lawyer or something and they don’t want people seeing they were a bartender,” she says.

At Yale, Kaplan says the paper has adopted a policy that many schools are using nationwide: Beyond correcting proven factual inaccuracies, he will not remove stories or any other piece of information under any circumstance.

But Kaplan, who has freelanced for The New York Times and interned at the St. Petersburg Times and Hartford Courant, says that of all the ethical issues he deals with, he thinks this is the fuzziest. It’s a new issue for papers like his, but he is mindful that he is editing the paper of record for his community.

“Tweaking things would put the paper on a slippery slope,” Kaplan said. “It’s easier said than done. Especially when you get people calling and e-mailing practically in tears.”