Alice Barrett has logged in at 2023-12-28 16:28:23
Alice Barrett has logged in at 2023-12-28 16:28:23

By John Ruch

Georgia Tech has removed from its website a student journalist’s personal account of critical reporting of Atlanta’s controversial public safety training center, which raised issues of free speech and academic freedom.

Alex Ip, the student who founded and edits independent news site The Xylom, says Georgia Tech’s communications department ordered his April 17 post to be heavily edited or deleted altogether. Blair Meeks, Georgia Tech’s associate vice president of external communications, didn’t deny it, but did point out that the post violates an IT policy and a law that makes the site the official voice of the school and the state of Georgia. However, the basis for this interpretation is unclear, and the website in question contains many other personal comments and third-party information.

Alex Ip, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Xylom.

Ip is an environmental engineering student who created The Xylom as a result of a science blog inspired by his teaching work. Next month he will be joining Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a graduate student in scientific writing, partly because of his xylom work. Ip says he was invited by Serve-Learn-Sustain (SLS), a campus-wide program where students gain hands-on experience to “create sustainable communities,” to submit a paper on his coverage of the training center. He worked at SLS as a student.

Ip’s comment was published on a section of the SLS website and was also distributed in an SLS newsletter. The post described how his coursework led to an interest in the controversy surrounding the training center and its environmental and social justice issues. It specifically drew attention to an article he wrote fact-checking claims made by the city of Atlanta about the project, which he says led to a press release making such claims being quietly “scrubbed” from the city’s website. “You don’t do that unless you know you’re on shaky facts and moral foundations,” he wrote of deleting the city’s press release, adding that the action “just made me more motivated to keep going.” to report to ‘Cop City’ … .”

Ip says SLS published his comment unedited. But at 10:52 p.m. that evening, he received emails from SLS employees saying Georgia Tech’s communications department had concerns. One concern was that the post made it clear that Ip’s comments were not SLS’s. But according to emails from employees Ip quoted to SaportaReport, the communications department wanted language revisions and the removal of a direct link to the Xylom article by the next day. Otherwise, the emails said, the post would be deleted entirely.

“The email specifically stated that the only other option was to remove the post from Georgia Tech’s website,” Ip said. “I felt like there was no other alternative…Either I change it or the post magically disappears.”

He said he agreed to various proposed changes to protect SLS employees because he doesn’t blame them for pressure from the communications department and because there was no real choice anyway.

The new version removed virtually all of Ip’s detailed first-person account and replaced it with much less colorful language in just three sentences. The new version no longer described his fact-checking article and its potential impact, saying only that Ip “deeped deeply into the controversy surrounding the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, including how he affects both people and nature and influenced”. The original post linked to two Xylom stories about the Learning Center – including the fact-checking article – while the edited version linked only to Xylom’s “About” page. The headline has also been changed. Originally read: “Fact-checking City of Atlanta’s Cop City Claims.” Revised version: “Georgia Tech Student Alex Ip Leads Student-Led Nonprofit Newsroom, Most Recently Focused On Atlanta Public Training Center” [sic].

Before and after revisions of Alex Ip’s posts about his coverage on the Georgia Tech website.

Meanwhile, Ip took to Twitter and posted before and after screenshots showing the changes, which other users were quick to denounce as censorship. Eventually the post was modified again to include a direct link to the fact check article.

SLS director Jennifer Hirsch did not respond to a request for comment, but said she forwarded the request to the communications department.

Georgia Tech is a public school subject to the freedom of speech guarantees of the US and Georgia constitutions. She is also committed to the principles of academic freedom, with her mission statement on the website stating, “We protect the freedom of all members of our community to ask questions, seek truth, and speak their minds.”

Meeks, Georgia Tech’s associate vice president, did not immediately answer questions about who ordered the changes to Ip’s SLS posts and why. In a written statement, he provided a detailed statement of Georgia Tech’s commitment to freedom of speech and expression. He also stressed that Georgia Tech did not order any changes to Ip’s original Xylom story, although no one appears to have made such an allegation.

Regarding the SLS post revisions, Meeks gave two reasons.

“Information shared on Georgia Tech’s websites is, by law, tantamount to being the voice of Georgia Tech and therefore the state of Georgia,” Meeks asserted. “As such, we must be vigilant that the content of our websites reflects the official views of Georgia Tech, and we must distinguish institutional speech from individual speech. While we remain committed to being an open campus community that encourages the free sharing and exchange of ideas, we must dedicate Georgia Tech’s online resources to furthering our mission and values.”

Meeks did not immediately clarify which law he was referring to and how it relates to constitutional and academic rights to challenge state opinions.

Meeks also cited a school’s information technology policy regarding the use of third-party content. How that applies, he did not immediately clarify. However, part of this relates to the removal of content that has not gone through a department’s “required review and approval process” or that violates general online content guidelines. “The ultimate authority to approve or remove content on institution’s online resources rests with the president,” the policy adds.

“In accordance with policy, it is not appropriate to duplicate the student’s blog post, content or any portion thereof on any Georgia Tech website,” Meeks said.

Regardless, the SLS website continues to contain many other “reflections” from students going back months that include first-person comments and quotes from third-party materials. Some of the materials appear to challenge state policy positions on other controversial issues, such as a student commentary on systemic racism.

A political backdrop to Georgia Tech’s move is rising threats to free speech within the university system and the Defend the Atlanta Forest protest movement against the training center, which protesters are calling “Cop City.”

Georgia Tech is part of Georgia’s university system, which is under political pressure from Republican lawmakers and administrators. Recent measures have included facilitating the firing of tenured professors and pressuring against the teaching of critical racial theory.

The training center protests have been met with controversial domestic terrorism charges, the removal of a skeptical member from an official advisory committee, lawyers attempting to demand internal records from legal-journalists, and the arrest or detention of journalists and protesters alleging charges of alleged retaliation entail being targeted for free speech.

Ip says he believes his position fits Georgia Tech’s mission of public service and the advancement of information. He said he has no plans, at least for now, to file a complaint or contest the job changes. He said Georgia Tech’s move on Twitter had the Streisand effect of attracting more attention than its original story. And he plans to continue following the story of MIT’s training center in the hopes of one day returning to write about environmental issues in the South.

“It’s pretty hilarious how that turned out,” Ip said. “I’m not worried about myself. I’m more concerned about this project and the remaining academic expression and freedom of speech.”