PENNSYLVANIA — School officials dropped all disciplinary charges last week against a University of Pennsylvania student over a photo he posted on the Internet of two students who appear to be having sex against a dorm room window.
The student, when questioned by the school’s Office of Student Conduct in September, admitted taking the photo from the window of a neighboring building and posting it on his personal Web site, said Andrew Geier, a graduate student who advised the accused photographer during the disciplinary process.
The couple was visible in the window over three consecutive days and there are many photos of the them circulating, Geier said.
The student who took the photos has not been named.
According to an article in The Daily Pennsylvanian, the Office of Student Conduct charged the student with sexual harassment and violating the school’s policy on acceptable uses of electronic resources because his site was on a university server.
In addition to The Daily Pennsylvanian’s coverage, the story was picked up by a variety of news outlets, including the Philadelphia Daily News, which ran the photo on its front page last week accompanied by the headline: "Ivy League Grind: It’s the Naked Truth."
"They were in a panic to drop the charges because of all the negative media coverage they were getting," Geier said of the university’s move. "They didn’t have a case, but it took the media to point it out to them."
Michele Goldfarb, director of the Office of Student Conduct, did not return messages seeking comment.
In a statement released Thursday, university officials acknowledged dropping the charges.
"The University has decided not to pursue disciplinary proceedings," the statement reads. "We are disturbed by the photographer’s conduct in this matter. We are concerned about the wide dissemination of the intimate photos in a manner and to the extent that subjected another member of the Penn community to embarrassment and ridicule. We have asked the student photographer to apologize and sincerely hope that he does."
Geier said he does not expect the student to apologize, saying, "he was well within his rights to take the photo."
Geier said his advisee felt vindicated by the decision and can now go back to worrying about final exams and term papers due before the holidays.
The university will drop charges against at least one other student who allegedly took photos of the same couple, Geier said.
First Amendment advocates came to the anonymous student’s defense last week arguing that he took pictures of a public event.
"No people leaning up against a window in plain site making love have a reasonable expectation for privacy," said Alan Charles Kors, a Penn history professor and student rights activist.
Kors, chairman of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education – a free speech advocacy group – successfully defended a Penn student in a 1993 campus free speech case. Kors offered to defend the student in this case before the charges were dropped.
Cases like this send "a terrible message to students about their free expression rights," Kors said. "This tells students you better not record or reveal what’s happening at Penn or we’re [university administrators] coming after you."
Kors commended The Daily Pennsylvanian’s role in the case.
"They got the debate started, they informed the public," he said of the paper’s coverage. "This shows the value of having an independent student press."
Jordan Koko, a lawyer for the female student featured in the photo, said in a statement that his client "will pursue all her legal options," according to The Daily Pennsylvanian.
Geier said he believes that any legal action would be against media outlets that print the name of the pictured student, whose identity has so far been withheld from publication, because they "certainly don’t have any case against the photographer."
–by Clay Gaynor, SPLC staff writer