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Should the Students' Union legally protect you from your own online persona?

Today's student media are carved in the stone of web publication though, that is potentially permanent, and searchable. The Students' Union has a duty to protect the student body from the resulting fall-out.

New Statesman
Students at the beginning of Manchester University's Freshers Week. Image: Getty

Across the country, students will have embarked on the University Career with Freshers' Weeks that will be unforgettable.

No, really, truly unforgettable.

They might want to forget them, such were the unwise relationships they forged, ill-judged costumes they wore on that pub crawl and general abandon and excess they experienced along with their new-found freedom, but they may not be able to do so very easily.

Firstly there is the problem of their friends. It may be that what goes on on campus, stays on campus, but it also stays on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, you get the picture - and so, unfortunately, did their roommate.

Students are adapting to this documenting of their every move though, and for many the first thing they do on the morning after is to erase as many virtual traces as they can of the night before. They are wise to the potential spread and permanence of their social media shadow.

However, there is another witness to their heady days as students that is there to record everything - Freshers' Week exuberance; the cut and thrust of student politics; triumph and defeat on the sportsfield and the rich tapestry of student life - the student newspaper. Or, as is the case on the campus at York, where I act as an adviser to the media - two student papers, a radio station, a TV station and a magazine.

And York is not unique, most universities will sustain this level of publication. That is a lot of media covering relatively small communities of 15,000 people. By the end of your degree there is a good chance you will have appeared in them in some form.

That might be for something benign, or even positive, an achievement or activity you are proud of. However, sometimes it might be something you would rather forget - student political controversy, misbehaviour by you and your teammates, the excess of the aforementioned Freshers' Week. Sad to say, and I speak from experience, rugby teams are not always the most civilising influence on campus.

If anyone wanted to dig out my misdemeanours though, they would have to excavate a 26-year-old copy of Liverpool Polytechnic's Shout magazine. I think I'm safe.

Today's student media are carved in the stone of web publication though, that is potentially permanent, and searchable. Searchable by employers. Your impassioned speech to fellow students to tear down global capitalism may have well-received in the Union debate, less so when you are looking for employment at a merchant bank. While the photo featuring the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson in full Bullingdon Club regalia has been effectively suppressed by use of copyright, were it to be taken now and slapped on a student newspaper website, it would have much greater power to embarrass for much longer.

One student publication I advise was contacted by an alumnus to raise this very problem. A Google search of his name was pulling up their website and an article where, as a former sabbatical officer, he had been accused of lying by a number of students. He asked that it be removed as he was worried it was affecting his employment prospects. I advised removal, not on ethical grounds in this instance, but because it was libellous and they did not appear to have any proof of lying - an accusation bandied about very often in the cut and thrust of student debate.

While that was a relatively easy call, what of other less clear-cut cases where there is no libel difficulty, but where something potentially damaging is being published?

There is the Data Protection Act 1998, which requires that personal data is not excessive and kept for longer than is necessary, but the journalistic exemption in that Act means students demanding their past be erased have little hope of aid from the DPA.

So is it a case of hard luck for those students embarrassed by their online cuttings? Well, not quite. Most student publications are funded entirely or in part by the Students' Union. The Union, as well as wanting to promote free expression on campus and support a vibrant media community, also has a duty of care to the wider student body. If it continues to support the publication of something which potentially damages the career prospects of an alumnus, that is a potential conflict.

Some students are arguing that the media charters which govern student publications should include a 'right to be forgotten'. How that would work is anyone's guess, if everything were to be deleted after a certain time, then positive achievements would be erased, to students' detriment. If only selected negative stories were to be deleted, who would decide which were to go?

Students' Unions and their media need to get ready to deal with these questions. As people more zealously police their online persona, they will be asked more and more.