VIRGINIA — The Judicial Affairs Office at James MadisonUniversity in Harrionsburg, Va., informed students today it intends to go aheadwith disciplinary proceedings against two student journalists for their effortsin reporting a story for JMU’s paper, The Breeze.
The first hearing in the process, scheduled to take place Thursday, Nov. 5,will determine whether the school will take action against the studentjournalists, who are accused of trespassing, disorderly conduct andnon-compliance with an official request while covering a news story oncampus.
Those opposed to the school’s action say its decision to pursue thecharges are in violation of the school’s policies and the First Amendmentrights guaranteed to the student reporters.
“I don’t have anything against JMU,” said Tim Chapman,editor-in-chief of The Breeze and one of the students facing charges.”But I’m not going to just sit back and let charges that violate theFirst Amendment go through.”
Chapman said he is not worried about the charges, which have now garnerednational media attention, because he and the other reporter were not doinganything they were not allowed to do.
“The consensus is we did nothing wrong,” Chapman said.”Nobody is really worried about doing their job because of this. In theend we know the charges aren’t going to stick.”
The incident started when Katie Hibson, a reporter for The Breeze,went to the dorms to report on an incident that took place Saturday, Oct. 17, inwhich someone allegedly broke in and opened shower curtains to watch girls whilethey were showering.
Hibson, who was doing the story for the next day’s paper, began byspeaking with one of the students outside of the dorm, after which she wasinvited in to talk with other sources.
When the resident adviser caught word of what was going on, she saidHibson would have to leave.
At that point Hibson called Chapman and explained the situation.
Chapman said he printed the school’s policy regarding who could comein to the dorms, and went with another reporter and resident of the dorms toinvestigate the situation.
They entered the building, and spoke with the RA, asking why Hibson hadbeen asked to leave in the first place.
“The RA couldn’t give a good answer,” Chapman said. “Aside from that we just needed to leave.”
The hall director was alerted to the situation, and placed a call, Chapmansaid, to who he believed was the police.
The reporters finished their interviews and left within a matter ofminutes, and police never arrived at the scene.
Chapman said nothing further happened until Thursday, Oct. 22, when hereceived an e-mail alerting him that judicial charges had been brought againsthim for trespassing, disorderly conduct and non-compliance with an officialrequest.
“I am concerned about the public perception of JMU,” Chapmansaid. “If people continue to prove they don’t understand [JMU]policies and the First Amendment, it’s hard for [a First Amendmentfriendly] perception to stick.”
Dr. Roger Soenksen, a communications professor at JMU, said it isunfortunate the school is getting negative press from theincident.”It’s very ironic we have this situation at aninstitution named after James Madison, who has been labeled the father of theConstitution,” Soenksen said.
He said it is important to understand student journalists are afforded thesame protections as professional journalists.
“Clearly we have a situation where people don’t understand theprotection afforded members of the student press under the FirstAmendment,” he said. “I’ve talked with individuals who keepreferring to [Chapman and Hibson] as merely students, and I am very quick tocorrect that and indicate they are journalists and should be treated as suchaccording to all the rights granted to them.”
Josh Bacon, the director of the Judicial Affairs Office at JMU, said it isnot the intention of Judicial Affairs to limit the freedoms of the FirstAmendment at the school.
“We try not to charge anyone for things that fall within theguidelines of First Amendment rights, or to have policies which do so,” hesaid.
While he could not comment on this case in particular, Bacon said theoffice tries to treat all students equally.
“For anyone, whether they are an athlete, in a student group,fraternity, sorority or member of the student press, they’re stillstudents and are held accountable to policies based on that fact, and not thefact that they’re an athlete, or in any other group,” he said.
If Chapman and Hibson are unhappy with the initial ruling, they have twochances to appeal the decision in front of different bodies before the decisionis made permanent.
Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said heis surprised the school is continuing to pursue action against the students.
“It’s an action so contradictory to the ordinary meaning of theFirst Amendment that it’s astonishing they haven’t backed down fromit yet,” he said. “A mistake this obvious shouldn’t take thislong to get corrected.”
Goldstein said the First Amendment is intended to guard rights insituations like the one at JMU.
“I would guess when reporters started asking questions about apeeping tom, people got uncomfortable,” he said. “Whileuncomfortable questions may be something that the school would like to avoid,uncomfortable questions are precisely what the First Amendment is designed toprotect.”