Court rules NYU paper not an arm of university, can print sexual assault victims’ names

The New York University student newspaper is not bound by a restraining order that prohibits NYU from disclosing the names of two sexual assault victims, a state judge ruled Dec. 8.

The restraining order, requested last month, was sought by two female NYU students who were sexually assaulted in their dorm in November 2003. They are suing the university for negligence.

The students asked the court to seal the lawsuit to prevent their being identified and to prohibit NYU from making their names known. The students sought to include the Washington Square News in the order, claiming it was a part of the private university.

The court granted the students’ request to prohibit the university from publicly disclosing their identity but said the Washington Square News could not be similarly bound.

The newspaper successfully argued that the restraining order would have been an unconstitutional prior restraint on its right to publish accurate, lawfully obtained information.

In granting the newspaper’s motion to intervene in a lawsuit against the university, the court recognized that the newspaper was an independent media source, and not an entity of the university, as the plaintiffs claimed.

“The fact that NYU ‘created a climate wherein the student newspaper flourished by furnishing office space’ and paying for certain of its expenses ‘is nothing more than a form of financial aid to the newspaper which cannot be traded off in return for editorial control,'” the court ruled.

By granting the newspaper the right to intervene as a third party, separate from the university, the court made an important distinction, Joe Finnerty, one of the newspaper’s attorneys, said.\n \n

“I think that gives student press one less hurdle to be able to get into court when these types of issues arise,” he said. “It’s a more direct First Amendment path right into court.”

Although the Washington Square News reported on the incidents in November 2003 and after the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit in October 2004, the paper did not use the women’s names, even though reporters lawfully obtained the names from court documents.

The court noted that the paper is still free to name the women in future stories, although court documents from now on will refer to the women using pseudonyms.

Michael Grygiel, another attorney for the newspaper, said he would be surprised if the plaintiffs appeal N.Y. Supreme Court Judge Carol Edmead’s ruling. An attorney for the plaintiffs could not be reached for comment.

SPLC View: While this decision recognizes the law’s traditional hostility to government-imposed “gag orders” and other forms of prior restraint that prohibit the press from reporting accurate and lawfully obtained information, the ruling may actually be more important to student media for recognizing a legal distinction between a private school and its unincorporated, but editorially independent student newspaper. Such a distinction could be particularly important, for example, where a plaintiff tries to hold a university – and its deep pockets – financially responsible for a libelous or other unlawful statement published in its student media. To date, there are several court decisions that have made clear that public colleges or universities cannot be held liable for content published in their student-edited media as long as school officials exercise a “hands-off” policy with respect to the publications’ editorial content. For private schools, however, the question has remained largely unanswered. This decision, recognizing the legal independence of The Washington Square News from NYU, is an important step in that direction. It could prove particularly helpful to other private school student media that have taken affirmative steps to establish their editorial independence. For example, the judge in this case seemed to be especially influenced by the Washington Square News’ constitution, which provides that all editorial decisions “are solely under the control of student editors.” Selling private school administrators on the importance of student press freedom will likely be much easier when you can show them how it may also make sound fiscal sense.