University disciplines student journalists for investigating computer registration glitch

PENNSYLVANIA — A West Chester University administratorsays she hopes disciplinary action taken against three studentjournalists who gained unauthorized access to the school’s onlineregistration service will help teach the students a lesson about"responsible newsgathering techniques."

Three staff members of the university’s student newspaper TheQuad were charged in May with disorderly conduct, academicmisconduct, dishonesty and failure to comply.

Following an anonymous tip, Quad staffers discoveredthat by changing one character in the Web browser address forthe school’s online registration site they were able to registerearly for classes.

Nineteen other students were also charged in the incident.

Quad editor Aaron Benson, one of the students who faceddisciplinary action, contends the newspaper’s staff accessed thesite as part of an investigation into a possible glitch in theregistration system, not for personal gain.

The Quad staffers who gained access to the site didin fact register for classes, but Benson said the students voluntarilyremoved the classes from their schedules after they had verifiedthat the classes would not automatically be purged by the university’scomputer system.

Benson said he contacted university officials to inform themof the loophole after the paper’s investigation confirmed theglitch. He said the newspaper agreed not to publish a story untilafter the problem had been corrected.

But Assistant Dean of Students Nicole McClenic said the studentjournalists’ actions violated the university’s student code ofconduct. McClenic ordered all 23 implicated students to receivethe same punishment — they will be placed on disciplinary probation,be required to write a three-page reflection paper on the incidentand will have to re-register for classes in August.

Benson, who pleaded guilty to the charges, said he was pleasedthat administrators, who originally considered leveling a moresevere punishment on the newspaper’s staff, eventually opted toapply the same punishment to all students implicated in the incident.

"We’re happy that they treated us just like everybodyelse and did not single us out for a harsher punishment,"he said.

McClenic said she hoped the incident would motivate studentjournalists on campus to pursue alternative means of conductinginvestigations — without having to engage in unauthorized activities.

In retrospect, Benson said it would have been wiser for thenewspaper’s staff members to bring the tip directly to universityofficials, rather than illegally accessing the Web site on theirown. He said the incident would cause him to exercise greatercaution when conducting investigations.

"I think in the future we are going to have more discussionof how to go about investigating these stories," he said.

But Stefan Presser, legal director of the Philadelphia chapterof the American Civil Liberties Union, said the incident raisesan important First Amendment concern for student journalists.Presser said the students’ guilty pleas were contrary to his advice.Instead, he said he believes the students should have taken legalaction against the school to avoid punishment.

"We thought there was an issue here that should have beenaddressed," Presser said. "But by pleading guilty, therewas no forum in which the issue could be addressed."

Nearly 5,000 copies of the issue of that contained an articleabout possible punishments for students who accessed the registrationsite early were stolen from campus racks and later found to havebeen thrown away. McClenic said she was unaware of any suspectsat this time.