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Originally published August 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 17, 2008 at 6:40 PM

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Seattle attorney finds that the Internet won't let go of his past

A Seattle lawyer is battling to get an old newspaper story about him to stop showing up on Google. Ten years ago, while a student at Seattle Pacific University, he was arrested. He was never charged, but the story about that, and his fight to clear his name lives on — online.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Alleging discrimination at Seattle Pacific University, Shakespear Feyissa was keen to land his story in the student newspaper.

Ten years later, he just wants to get it out.

While a senior at SPU 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.

Administrators are willing to remove the article from the newspaper's online archives, but the student editors want none of it.

In an age when a Google cache can matter just as much as a polished résumé, people's life stories are no longer solely their own to tell. Instead, the traces of their lives are adrift in cyberspace, their reputations strewn across old news clippings or Facebook profiles or online discussion forums. Collecting and managing the fragments can be like repairing Humpty Dumpty.

"Information floating around in the ether — we don't have any way to stop that or go out there scrubbing the record," said Brock Meeks, a spokesman for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "Picking up all the breadcrumbs would be a Herculean task."

But Feyissa is bent on trying.

"It's still the most painful experience of my life," he said, "the lack of justice, the lack of fairness."

Back in May 1998, Feyissa filed discrimination complaints with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights and with SPU, alleging he was disciplined more harshly based on his race and national origin. Both investigations cleared the small Christian private school of wrongdoing.

Feyissa, who emigrated from Ethiopia in 1992, couldn't find a lawyer to represent him. He became one himself, with a degree from Seattle University School of Law.

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He sued SPU in 2004 for violating its own policies by suspending him without a hearing. He lost the case in 2005 and an appeal in 2006 because the statute of limitations had expired. (That lawsuit also appears on Google.)

Feyissa didn't stop there. He still believes justice has not been served.

The 1998 article in the student newspaper, the Falcon, quotes Feyissa saying "SPU is still a school like the KKK, in my opinion." It also quotes then-provost Bruce Murphy saying there was "sound reason to believe that Mr. Feyissa is a threat to persons on campus."

With that popping up every time someone searches his name, Feyissa said he cannot escape the shadow of the accusation of attempted sexual assault, even though Seattle police closed the investigation and he was never charged. He's also worried what people will think after reading this article.

"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.

So for two years, Feyissa has requested that SPU remove the article, most recently four months ago, he said.

Seeking to end the bruising and expensive fracas, SPU moved to placate Feyissa. SPU's attorney on the case, Michael Porter, agreed in a Sept. 5, 2006, letter to purge the article. Administrators a month later asked the Falcon's student editors to delete the story.

Their answer: No way.

"We explained to them, if they wanted to start down a path of removing historical archives and pulling it from the public sphere, what they're doing is censorship," said Chris Durr, the editor at the time. "We basically said, sorry, we have principles in journalism that don't allow us to put stuff in the memory hole and pretend it never happened."

After all, the students said, it's factual and a matter of record.

"Shakespear Feyissa may not like the story, but that doesn't mean he should get to dictate what gets removed from a newspaper's online archive," Debra Smith, who wrote the original article, said in an e-mail. She now writes for The Herald in Everett and teaches a journalism class at SPU. "A newspaper serves as the paper of record for a community. I don't think that function changes when the content moves online."

She added that the decision lay solely with the student editors. Rick Jackson, the newspaper's adviser, declined to comment.

After former editor Durr said no, he never received an official response from the administration. But SPU's request returned in January 2008 with a new batch of editors.

Don Mortenson, vice president of business and planning, said administrators tried repeatedly to convince the students that the article benefited no one and wasn't worth standing up for. But from the students' perspective, the larger issue — freedom of the press — was.

"The student editors decided it was their right or whatever to keep online what they wanted," Mortenson said. "It's not a matter of someone's rights being violated, it's just a matter of wisdom. Is it the prudent thing to do?"

Mortenson said every time Feyissa calls SPU's attorney about the Falcon, the school gets the bill.

"I'd love to have the students pay for it next time," he said.

But as long as the Falcon's editors won't budge, neither will that article. It's stored on the Falcon's computer server, to which administrators have no access, Mortenson said.

While the wrangle between Feyissa and SPU has worn on, the Falcon's server has aged. Now it needs replacing.

When the Falcon asked the student government in April for $3,000 for a new server or Web host, the student government consulted the administration about its liability in exactly this kind of situation, said Daniel Miller, last year's student government president.

The administration replied that first it wants the Falcon's editor-in-chief to sign a contract giving officials access to the new server, and affirming that SPU is the publisher of the Falcon and has final say over content.

That's something the incoming editor, Evi Sztajno, is not willing to do.

"It's a private university — they have every legal right to come in and take this article down, but for some reason they're asking my permission to take it down," she said. "That's permission I cannot give because of journalistic ethics, which, I might add, we are taught at this school."

Feeling squeezed in the middle of the saga between Feyissa and SPU, the Falcon staff is hoping to stand on the First Amendment. But at a private school, their latitude is limited, said Adam Goldstein, an attorney for the Student Press Law Center.

"If the school thinks that its ability to erase the record of someone who, once upon a time, was accused of a crime is more important than its ability to provide a media education, it's free to do that," Goldstein said.

Mortenson said he was not involved with the server request and directed questions to Les Steele, the vice president of academic affairs, who was on vacation this week.

As long as the impasse between the Falcon and the administration continues, so does the standoff between SPU and Feyissa.

Isaac Arnsdorf: 206-464-2397 or iarnsdorf@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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