Falcon hits server impasse

Since the start of last quarter, The Falcon office has been bombarded by students, faculty and SPU community members asking why The Falcon has not been available online. In a current newspaper culture where readership is down and newsrooms are slashing their budgets and workforce, it is a suicide mission to ignore the possibilities of reaching the public through online media.

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The Falcon is aware of this need, and has a new, reader friendly Web site with blog capabilities, photo galleries and more advertising space to meet the modern demands of its readers. We would love to share it with you but don’t have a server. Our original server died in September, and our efforts to obtain funding through ASSP are at a stalemate.

The Falcon’s efforts have reached an impasse because of a complex story that spans a decade. This story raises pivotal issues about ethics for student journalists and the responsibilities of both university officials and student government leaders in fostering education and free expression.

This story involves Shakespear Feyissa, a former student upset over his expulsion from SPU, years of subsequent legal battles between him and the university and a 1998 Falcon story about his case caught in the middle.

This story involves the relationship between student government and the university administration, the policies that SPU employs and applies to student media and how these policies are developed and enforced.

Finally, and most importantly, this story involves the values SPU holds dear in the education of all students: character, competence and grace.

The Feyissa story

Feyissa lays out the facts in his legal complaint against SPU, in which he states that "on or about January 23, 1998 (he) was taken into custody by the Seattle Police Department as a suspect for investigation of alleged attempted sexual assault… The police investigation was concluded and criminal charges were not brought or filed against the Plaintiff."

On Jan. 27, 1998, SPU officials suspended Feyissa indefinitely, citing his arrest and other disciplinary issues involving Feyissa.

In March of 1998, Feyissa asked The Falcon to write a story about his suspension, asserting that SPU had failed to follow its own procedures. Then news editor Debra Smith ran the story in May 1998, just after the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Division opened a race-discrimination investigation of SPU based on Feyissa’s claims.

The investigation exonerated SPU of charges of racial discrimination, and The Falcon ran the story on the investigation’s results in October 1998.

Feyissa finished his education elsewhere and eventually obtained a law degree from Seattle University. In January 2004, he sued SPU for breach of contract. After nearly a year of legal proceedings, King County Superior Court dismissed the suit because the statute of limitations had expired. The court ordered Feyissa to pay SPU $1,032.59 for costs related to a deposition. The Washington State Court of Appeals upheld the ruling against Feyissa in January 2006.

Despite the court’s ruling, Feyissa called SPU’s attorneys to complain about The Falcon’s October 1998 story. The story remained accessible online through The Falcon’s Web site, which was hosted by The Falcon’s own server, independent of SPU’s server. The Falcon’s server was originally obtained with Computer and Information Systems’ (CIS) approval.

Although the October 1998 story’s summary of the facts did not differ from Feyissa’s account in his lawsuit against SPU, Feyissa claimed that the story damaged his reputation and threatened his livelihood as an attorney.

In September 2006, SPU’s attorney sent Feyissa a letter agreeing to remove the story, according to The Seattle Times. At this time, The Falcon’s editors did not know of Feyissa’s legal battles against SPU, his complaints about the story or the university’s promise to Feyissa to remove the story.

It wasn’t until two years later, when The Times published a story about Feyissa and SPU on Aug. 15, 2008, that the editors learned about the university’s promise to Feyissa. We don’t know who leaked the story, other than that it wasn’t someone from The Falcon or its adviser and Assistant Professor of journalism Rick Jackson.

The server and SPU’s request

In October 2006, just a month after the university’s promise to Feyissa, the administration asked then editor-in-chief Chris Durr to remove the story. They asked again in February 2007 and February 2008. Each time the editors said no.

With each request SPU administrators acknowledged that the story was accurate and journalistically sound. But by removing the story, they argued, the editors could finally put an end to Feyissa’s calls and spare SPU from incurring more legal fees. They also raised concerns that another costly suit could be imminent.

In the February 2007 meeting, Vice President of Business and Planning Don Mortenson raised the prospect that if Feyissa did file a suit against SPU over the story, the costs would be passed on to ASSP, which supplies most of The Falcon’s funding and the editors’ salaries.

The Falcon editors sympathized with the administration’s position and didn’t want Feyissa to cost SPU more legal fees. Yet the editors felt there were other issues to consider. If they removed an accurate and fair story, the editors would be violating journalistic ethics and setting a dangerous precedent for future Falcon editors.

When The Falcon’s editors asked whether pulling the story would make Feyissa stop calling, the administration said they didn’t know. Nor could they say what grounds Feyissa would have for filing another suit. If it were a libel case, for example, the statue of limitations extends only two years from the date of publication, and therefore already long expired.

Though editors changed over the years, their responses remained the same: If there were problems with the story journalistically, they would gladly run corrections or pull the story from their server. Otherwise, the story stayed online.

Yet, as the administration itself admitted, the 1998 story has no problems.

The time between these requests was filled with long silences and a standoff. The Falcon chose not to publicize the matter because the university chose not to seize the server or shut down the newspaper.

But then The Falcon needed a new server.

The saga over the new server

By spring 2008, The Falcon server’s hardware pumped faintly, wheezing regularly and crashing altogether occasionally. The editors diagnosed it with living on borrowed time and determined they needed a new one to support a more modern Web page. So The Falcon pursued a two-step process: First, it obtained approval from ASSP to transfer funds in its budget to pay two students to redesign The Falcon’s Web site. ASSP approved this move, and over the summer, the two students designed the new Web site, which is ready to go.

Incoming editor-in-chief Evi Sztajno worked with ASSP and CIS officials for five weeks during the spring quarter on a proposal to replace the server. At the recommendation of ASSP officials and with the approval of CIS, The Falcon submitted to Finance Board plans for The Falcon Web site to operate on an off-site server through a Web site hosting company.

ASSP officials felt this was a cheaper option than buying a new, expensive server with more technological complexities. The Finance Board approved the proposal for off-site Web hosting, and Sztajno prepared to present it to student senate in what she expected would be a sure-fire victory.

On the night that the proposal was to go before senate, ASSP tabled it. At the time, ASSP officers said they did so because of financial problems at the Cascade Yearbook. Sztajno felt blindsided, not understanding why The Falcon’s proposal would be linked with Cascade’s problems.

Just days later, then ASSP president-elect Joel VanderHoek e-mailed Vice President of Academic Affairs Les Steele regarding Sztajno’s proposal.

"Because of the nature of this proposal, we realize that this has the potential to affect the University beyond our own department," VanderHoek wrote.

VanderHoek asked for Steele’s input on any policy the university might have regarding The Falcon’s request, writing that he understood that "off-site and/or independent web-hosting exposes the University to greater liability."

Finally, VanderHoek cited his lack of confidence in the Board of Student Media (BSM), which oversees media organizations on campus, saying it had not carried out its duties.

"Thus, there is currently no effective accountability procedure in place to balance the independent news reporting practices of The Falcon," VanderHoek wrote.

This memo was the first that anyone at The Falcon had heard over their independent reporting or liability from ASSP. Sztajno continued discussions with VanderHoek and other ASSP leaders, in which ASSP members continued to express unease over liability, including references to the Feyissa case, Sztajno said.

On May 28, 2008, Steele responded to VanderHoek’s memo, saying he had discussed VanderHoek’s concerns with President Philip Eaton, Dean of Student Life Jeff Jordan, Mortenson and Assistant Vice President of Technology Services Dave Tindall.

"I appreciate your sensitivity to the possibility of potential greater liability for the University," Steele said in the memo.

Steele acknowledged that, although there were no policy concerns related to the purchase of a new file server for The Falcon, all parties must reaffirm that Seattle Pacific University is the publisher of The Falcon and therefore has final authority over the content stored on the file server.

Regarding off-site Web hosting, Steele’s memo went one step further.

"We ask that all parties indicate their affirmation of this by signing a contract," Steele said in the memo. "Both the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Students and the Assistant Vice President of Technology Services must have access to the server and the web site."

In light of these developments, Sztajno submitted a revised request to senate, asking for funds so The Falcon could obtain its own server rather than utilize off-site Web hosting. The editors hoped that this move would at least maintain the status quo and solve the problems posed by the university’s new policy.

Senate voted down the proposal in its last meeting of spring 2008.

Since then, editors have considered their options. Informal discussions with ASSP have indicated that if The Falcon resubmits another proposal for funds for a server, ASSP will again go to university officials asking about SPU’s policy.

The Falcon editors tried to meet with Steele to clarify his policy about the server during Fall 2008. Their meeting requests were rebuffed and passed on to Jordan. Sztajno and editors wanted to meet with Steele, however, because he wrote the policy.

Finally, the Falcon editors secured a meeting with Steele, Jordan, VanderHoek and ASSP Executive Vice President Kevin McFarland before Thanksgiving break. At the beginning of the meeting, Sztajno clarified that everything was on the record. Steele responded by abruptly ending the meeting.

Here we are

The university first asked The Falcon to remove the October 1998 story just one month after it promised Feyissa it would do so. Up until the university made its first request in October 2006, there had been no conflicts between The Falcon and the university regarding the server and The Falcon’s Web site – and no talks of a contract.

The university could have announced its new server policy at any time. Why did it require a contract only when The Falcon needed a new server?

Legally, there’s nothing stopping the university from doing what it wants, other than its own mission to foster free inquiry and student learning. The Falcon does not dispute SPU’s authority, only its requirement of a contract. Therefore, why does the university want us to sign a contract giving it permission to do what it already has authority to do?

By signing a contract with the university, The Falcon would be giving SPU the cover of its supposed consent to remove the Feyissa story or any other content the university doesn’t like. If The Falcon tried to protest, the university could present the contract and create the illusion of the editors’ consent. In the end, though, it’s just coercion. Signing a contract does not make the removal of an accurate and fair story any less of a breach of journalistic standards.

It is unfortunate that the university has had to spend money taking Feyissa’s calls. Even in today’s difficult financial climate, SPU is a steward to more than money; it is a steward of students’ education. How much is that worth?

Everything the university does is centered on fostering teachable moments for its students. In every discipline at SPU, students are expected to reach for the highest standards of their fields, and to engage their culture as competent leaders anchored firmly in Christian ethics.

How are editors at The Falcon, as they enter the workforce, supposed to explain to potential employers and professional journalists what they have been asked to do? How then does the idea of stewardship hold up?

It is not clear why the university won’t stop accepting Feyissa’s calls. Considering that Feyissa has yet to file a suit and that the statute of limitations has long expired, exactly how great of a risk of liability is there?

Ironically, organizations, such as the Student Press Law Center, argue that the more a university involves itself in the operation of student media, the greater its legal exposure — not less. So, how much of the university’s desire to remove the story is due to libel and how much of it is due to wanting to keep a promise it made to Feyissa?

None of this is a fight that the editors at The Falcon have been looking for, which is why we’ve held off from writing this story up until now. But as a student publication that desires to serve its readers, we know that we are ultimately accountable to you. You have a right to know what’s going on and why The Falcon has no online presence at this time.

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Title: Falcon hits server impasse | Author: Christina Ghan | Section: News | Published Date: 2008-12-10 | Internal ID: 5840