LSU student informed he could face disciplinary action for talking to student newspaper

LOUISIANA — Administrators at Louisiana State University have warned a student under disciplinary investigation that he could face additional charges after he discussed details of a student hearing with the campus newspaper, according to an article in The Daily Reveille.

Campus administrators would not discuss the specifics of the case or related details, citing the privacy rights of those involved, but the newspaper as well as the student, Patrick Esfeller, say the dean of students made the warning after learning that Esfeller had revealed elements of the case to the publication.

Esfeller approached The Daily Reveille in the midst of a student judicial investigation he believed was unfairly targeting him, said Daily Reveille Editor in Chief Jeff Jeffrey. The newspaper began its own investigation into the case, which was based on an accusation that Esfeller harassed his ex-girlfriend, a student, with repeated telephone calls.

Last week, the newspaper and Esfeller filed an open records request to obtain the university’s records on the case after Esfeller signed an official waiver providing The Daily Reveille with access to his information. The request was denied on the grounds that the records are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that says a school cannot release student records maintained by the institution.

In an e-mail telling Esfeller that the records request was denied, Eric Norman, associate dean of students and director of judicial affairs, said “the attempt to make public this information could be interpreted as an attempt to intimidate, harass, or unduly influence a potential witness, complainant, hearing panel member, or university administrator” and “as such, any attempt to make this matter public may result in additional charges.”

Esfeller told The Daily Reveille that he has hired an attorney and contacted the American Civil Liberties Union for assistance, but an ACLU spokesman told him they would not take the case unless the university took punitive actions. Esfeller said he is waiting to see what action the university takes.

“The threat he made was totally uncalled for, and he’s basically trying to keep me from having my freedom of speech. I have an attorney, and I’ve been in contact with the (American Civil Liberties Union),” he told The Daily Reveille.

Dean of Students K.C. White said that the university is perpetually involved in a balancing act, ensuring careful consideration of students’ freedom of expression and the right to privacy. And although one student might be willing to impart his or her records, the disclosure could infringe another’s privacy, she said.

“As an institution we have to balance the rights of all of our students,” she said. “When you’ve got competing interests, where is the public’s right to know versus the victim’s privacy?”

The Daily Reveille printed the name of the student accusing Esfeller in its Monday edition, and in an editorial the newspaper defended Esfeller’s decision to release that information.

“A newspaper cannot operate without receiving information from the public, and attempting to control what is told to The Daily Reveille is in turn an attempt to control the newspaper itself,” the editorial argued. “The dean of students’ policy regarding students speaking to their newspaper is not only offensive, it creates a chilling effect on the student body.”

Jeffrey is expecting to meet with officials from the dean of students soon, and he said he will reiterate the argument.

“I’m going to meet with the dean of students and tell her in clear terms there is no way the university can influence or stifle free speech,” he said.

By Brian Hudson, SPLC staff writer