NYU paper not barred from printing sexual assault victims’ names, court rules

NEW YORK — The New York University student newspaper is not bound by a restraining order that sought to keep the names of two sexual assault victims out of the paper, a state judge ruled Dec. 3.

The Washington Square News successfully argued that the injunction, requested Nov. 9, would have been an unconstitutional prior restraint upon the paper. In granting the newspaper’s motion to intervene in a lawsuit against the unversity, the court recognized that the newspaper was an independent media source, and not an entity of the university, as the plaintiffs claimed.

The plaintiffs, two female NYU students, were sexually assaulted in their dorm in November 2003. They are suing the university for negligence.

The plaintiffs asked the court to seal the lawsuit to prevent the women from being identified and to prohibit NYU from making their names known. The plaintiffs sought to include the Washington Square News in the order, claiming it was a part of the university, which the newspaper viewed as a clear First Amendment violation, said Joe Finnerty, one of the newspaper’s attorneys.

“What our concern was was that the language of the application … would be read as a gag order on the Washington Square News,” Finnerty said. “The reason we made our motion to intervene was just to make sure there was no misunderstanding on that.”

The Washington Square News constitution provides that all editorial decisions “are solely under the control of student editors.” The newspaper argued that even though it has offices at New York University, it receives no financial support from the university and is an independent campus newspaper.

“We’ve long considered ourselves as independent as student newspapers get,” said Bret Collazzi, the outgoing editor in chief of the Washington Square News.

By granting the newspaper the right to intervene as a third party, separate from the university, the court made an important distinction, Finnerty said.

“The plaintiff was trying to join the university and the newspaper without a legal or constitutional basis for doing it,” he said.

The distinction should make it easier for student journalists to assert their rights in court, Finnerty added.

“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 womens’ names, even though reporters lawfully obtained the names from court documents.

“The judge reaffirmed significant principles of free speech and press by refusing to prohibit the Washington Square News from reporting information accurately obtained from court files in the course of independent newsgathering activity,” said Michael Grygiel, another attorney for the newspaper.

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.

Grygiel 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.

Collazzi said he expected a favorable ruling for the newspaper but was nonetheless pleased with the outcome.

“In a case like this, where we didn’t have an intention of using these names and most likely we never would,” he said, “it’s just important that the decision is made by us as student journalists and not by either a court or by the plaintiffs.”

Case: Doe v. New York University, 786 N.Y.S.2d 892 (N.Y. Cty Sup. Ct. 2004)