College journalists are accustomed to facing angry letters, nasty e-mails and dirty looks from the campus officials they cover. But lately, some have been faced with a much more intimidating response to their newsgathering: disciplinary charges before student conduct boards.
Student conduct codes, judicial hearings and harassment charges are usually punishments reserved for individual students based on academic dishonesty, disorderly conduct or illegal behavior. But journalists at four student newspapers this year faced discipline by these means either for content published in the newspaper or newsgathering efforts by staff members.
– At Fairfield University in Connecticut, sexual harassment charges were filed against the student-run newspaper in response to a column.
– Nine seniors at the University of Utah had their diplomas and records held after a traditional farewell prank using subtly spelled out vulgar words was published in the paper’s last issue.
– The editor-in-chief at Central Oregon Community College was put through a disciplinary hearing after writing an editorial critical of the student government
– And at James Madison University, reporters were brought up on trespassing charges and tried in front of an academic judicial committee.
The student disciplinary system is not intended to be used to target student journalists for their coverage or news reporting, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.
”Your conduct as a journalist is like your conduct at any other workplace setting, and if you act inappropriately there are workplace remedies for that,” LoMonte said. ”You wouldn’t think of using the student conduct code to punish somebody who does their job badly at the campus coffee shop, and you shouldn’t use it that way in the newsroom either.”
At Fairfield University in Connecticut, sexual harassment charges were brought against The Mirror in response to a controversial column published discussing ”the walk of shame.”
The column, part of the newspaper’s ”He Said” column series, was meant to be a satire on ”the walk of shame” from the male perspective. The controversy stemmed from the columnists’ tone and use of words like ”slut” and ”hood rat” to describe women.
Amid student protests against the column, four students filed sexual harassment charges first against the columnist, and then against the newspaper itself–something staff members and the adviser felt was an extreme response.
”The larger question is, can a newspaper even be charged with sexual harassment?” said Dr. James Simon, adviser for The Mirror. ”This is the first time the policy was ever invoked in this manner; the people who developed the original policy never dreamed of applying it this way.”
One of the main questions that arose during the controversy was how far the independent status of The Mirror could be carried in defending these charges. Simon said that this is an unresolved issue not only at Fairfield, but at student newspapers across the country–especially at private universities where students do not have the benefit of First Amendment rights.
”We publish with the approval of the university president, and I think students always have to remind themselves of that,” Simon said. ”I think the administration is struggling, just like the students, with just how independent the paper should be.”
LoMonte said that students working at an independent student publication should be looked upon the same way as students working at an organization completely unaffiliated with the university.
Peter Caty, editor-in-chief of
, said although the opposition was merely a small fraction of both students and faculty, the backlash was fairly severe.
Even though Caty said publishing the column was ”uncalled for,” he sees the harassment charges as an illegitimate attempt to control the newspaper.
”There is a very fine line between freedom of speech and ethics,” Caty said. ”We knew we were wrong, but ultimately we realized that freedom of speech is definitely important in the student newspaper. You need to have that or else it won’t work.”
Disruption and obstruction
When the senior staff members of The Daily Utah Chronicle used drop cap letters to spell out sexual terms in their senior columns, administrators were less than amused–despite the fact that spelling out words with drop caps in seniors’ farewell columns had been done for the past 10 years.
The university concluded that the students had violated the Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities for ”intentional disruption or obstruction of teaching, research, administration, disciplinary proceedings or university activities,” and ”unauthorized or improper use of any university property, equipment, facilities or resources” and required the students to meet with the associate dean of students in order to receive their diplomas and other records.
Adam Kissel, director for the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said that punishing student journalists through university disciplinary action can be a dangerous obstruction to free student speech.
”The university is signaling that certain speech is so unacceptable that it could lead to withholding of your degree, and that could have a definite chilling effect on campus,” Kissel said.
Alyssa Whitney, production manager for The Chronicle, knew from the beginning that the university did not have the right to punish the staff members through the student conduct code.
”The Chronicle is an independent paper, and even though we serve the university community, the actual university administration didn’t really have power over us,” she said. ”It’s sad they thought they could punish us as individuals, as students, for something we did at our job. I thought it was pretty ridiculous of them.”
While Whitney admits that the university has legitimate reason to be concerned with what is published and distributed on campus, Whitney said the senior tradition did not cause a large disturbance on campus.
As student journalists, Editor-in-Chief Rachel Hanson said the nine seniors should have been dealt with in terms of their jobs at the newspaper instead of punished as students through academic means.
”For them to withhold something that we’d earned separately from the paper is definitely destroying that free speech right we have,” Hanson said. ”If I had gotten a reprimand through my position, that would have been a business decision. To have my diploma withheld is a totally different matter because it is a separate punishment.”
Tension between the student newspaper, The Broadside, at Central Oregon Community College and the student government had been brewing for some time. But when Editor-in-Chief Don Iler wrote an editorial criticizing a member of student government for questionable hiring practices, the student demanded that all newspapers be removed from the stands and filed a disciplinary complaint charging defamation against Iler.
Iler went through a disciplinary hearing and was ultimately acquitted of the charges of defamation, but said that it was wrong for the school to go forward with the hearing.
”It’s just showing complete disregard for the U.S. Constitution, for the Oregon State Constitution–just stepping all over freedom of speech,” Iler said. ”As a student publication we have the right to print things, especially when they fall completely within the bounds of what the law says that we’re allowed to write.”
Iler said that regardless of whether the editorial painted the student government in a favorable light, it was not libelous or slanderous and the school had no right to continue with the disciplinary hearing.
”I feel that our college just needs to understand the role of the student newspaper and the role of the press in general,” Iler said. ”I still had to sit there and go through this disciplinary hearing when obviously I was just exercising my First Amendment right and hadn’t broken any of the rules of the school at all.”
Student journalists at JMU’s student newspaper, The Breeze, found themselves faced with disciplinary action for newsgathering methods rather than for the content of the newspaper.
When The Breeze sent a reporter to cover a break-in that took place in a dorm where someone allegedly opened shower curtains to watch girls showering, an angry resident adviser demanded that the reporter leave.
Tim Chapman, who was editor-in-chief at the time, arrived at the scene in response to a call from the reporter and was asked to leave as well.
A few days later, Chapman and the reporter, Katie Hibson, were notified that judicial charges had been brought against them for trespassing, non-compliance with an official request and disorderly conduct.
The two then had to go through disciplinary hearings to address their charges.
”I thought this was handled pretty poorly,” Chapman said. ”What we were doing was newsgathering in a place where we had been let into the building by a resident. So as far as we knew, that was our First Amendment right.”
Disciplinary boards convened by school officials may not be held to the same constitutional standards as a court of law, including the burden of proof–something LoMonte said puts students at a disadvantage. Furthermore, students should have the freedom to work without fear of punishment when fulfilling their roles as journalists.
”It’s especially inappropriate to punish newsgathering in front of a disciplinary board because the constitutional standards for a court of law may not translate to a board of college administrators,” LoMonte said.
”A journalist shouldn’t go out into the field having to fear that they might be yanked in front of a disciplinary board because they step into a building someone has declared off limits.”
Student journalists need to be free to engage in newsgathering that will lend itself to the investigative stories that need to be told on campus, Chapman said, and not just think of themselves as student newspapers, but as any other member of the press.
Chapman, who was found not guilty at his hearing, calls the entire ordeal a ridiculous distraction for his staff and for himself.
”What it came down to was an overzealous resident adviser and hall director who wanted to make sure that what happened in their dorm didn’t get out, and clearly they didn’t understand the First Amendment,” Chapman said. ”It’s a shame that the focus was put on myself and Katie when it really should have been on what was going on with dorm security.”
Direct censorship is, in ways, easier to fight than these indirect methods of censorship since more people can recognize it and mobilize against it, Hanson said.
Though student journalists cannot prevent these kinds of judicial punishments, they can combat the charges by becoming well-informed about what the codes say and exactly what infraction they have been charged with.
”Many times we see rules used loosely or sloppily to punish conduct that doesn’t really fall within those rules,” LoMonte said. ”There can be fundamental procedural fairness issues. If at all possible, try to get legal counsel or at least a parent or trusted adult in the hearing to provide advice and serve as a witness.”
LoMonte said that when administrations use student conduct codes or judicial charges as a means of censorship, it can be more threatening to student speech than outright censorship.
”When you’re talking about people with life-or-death authority over your college career, it becomes a different story,” he said. ”It’s one thing to threaten to yank a story, it’s much more intimidating when the threat goes to your very ability to complete your education.”
By Sommer Ingram, SPLC staff writer