Defamation, Free Speech, Google / Search Engines, Media and Journalism, Technology

The Google Hit Dilemma
(Or: another reason not to name your kid ‘Shakespear’)

feyissa.jpgThe embarrassing Google hit is one of the great new fears of the modern age. If the number-one Google hit for your name is your work bio, Corporate Challenge race-time results, or nothing at all, consider yourself lucky. You could have something worse, like, “Kashmir Hill. Is that her real name or her porn screen name?” Or something much worse, like the derogatory comments that spurred the Autoadmit lawsuit.
Seattle lawyer Shakespear Feyissa is in a Google predicament. He wants a ten-year-old article removed from his college newspaper’s archives. The school administrators say sure, but the college newspaper editors are adamantly opposed. We love principled undergrads. From the Seattle Times:

While a senior at [Seattle Pacific University] 10 years ago, Feyissa was arrested on suspicion of attempted sexual assault and suspended. He was never charged, but the suspension stuck — indefinitely.
Feyissa complained that his punishment was more severe because of his race, he told the student newspaper at the time, but an investigation dismissed his claim.
He’s a lawyer now, and that article — still among the first hits for Feyissa’s name on Google — continues to hurt him personally and professionally, he said. So Feyissa, at 33, has been pressuring SPU to help clear his name.

We question his tactics. By going after the school, he has succeeded in getting the original Falcon article knocked back a few pages when Google searching his name. But due to the media coverage of his crusade, he now has tons of hits with the paragraph intro, “A decade ago Shakespear Feyissa was arrested on suspicion of attempted sexual assault.”
Read more, after the jump.

This will not likely help him solve his problems:

“Do you know how many girls, after they see that, we go on a date and they don’t want to see me again?” he asked.

And for the sake of his business, Feyissa said, he fears the article casts him as a troublemaker who files frivolous discrimination complaints — not exactly the image he wants as a civil-rights lawyer.

Opposing attorneys have dug up the article to smear him in litigation, he said. Once a juror asked him about it in court.

The article is a matter of historical record (as is the fact that Feyissa was never charged). If the article is not defamatory, a newspaper would be well within its rights in asserting First Amendment protection.
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.
Moral of the story: give your kid a bland name to protect them from Google hit dilemmas. Avoid the name “Shakespear” at all costs.
Seattle attorney finds that the Internet won’t let go of his past [Seattle Times via Romenesko]

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