Following ‘no-contact’ order saga, Baylor U. student court denies press coverage

TEXAS — Two weeks after the student court at Baylor University issued a no-contact order to the student newspaper, two photographers and a reporter were denied access to a hearing last week.

Chief justice Cody Coll told the student reporters that they could not photograph or record the court hearing Tuesday because it violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the federal student privacy law. The reporters were also asked to delete all information gathered before their dismissal from the court.

While Coll declined to comment on why he chose to cite FERPA, Linda Wilkins, the editor in chief of The Baylor Lariat, said she believes the students were wrongfully removed.

“We did our homework, we did our research and it didn’t seem like FERPA was actually a valid reason for us not to be there to take pictures,” she said.

Director of Student Activities Matt Burchett said that while he understood the “judges’ desire to protect the participants,” he does not believe FERPA applied in this situation.

“According to our understanding, only the documents that were presented post-hearing related to the actual recommendations for action were protected under FERPA and the proceedings themselves were not necessarily under that same protection,” he said, noting that since Baylor’s Student Organization Policies and Procedures do not directly address coverage of student court hearings, judges handle privacy concerns on a case-by-case basis.

FERPA restricts the actions of an institution’s agents and employees, not the students who attend the institution. In a 1993 opinion letter, the Department of Education said “FERPA was not intended to apply to campus newsletters or records maintained by campus newspapers” but rather to education records “maintained by an educational agency or institution.”

Wilkins said Coll’s miscitation of FERPA inhibited both a Lariat reporter and photographer, as well as a yearbook photographer, from adequately covering the event. However, despite Coll’s warning, Wilkins and her staff chose to print a photograph staff member Kevin Freeman took on Tuesday before he was told to leave the hearing.

“I think this indicates that both of us, at The Lariat and the student court or student government, need to be aware of what our jurisdictions are and what are rights are,” Wilkins said. “If there is a valid reason that we shouldn’t or can’t be somewhere, we both need to be aware of that instead of citing something that doesn’t actually apply.”

On Wednesday, Wilkins sent Freeman again to cover the hearing. After asking for the approval of both the plaintiffs and the defendant, Coll allowed Freeman to stay and take pictures.

This marks the second conflict between the newspaper and the student court since Coll assumed the position of chief justice less than one month ago.

On February 5, the court issued a no-contact order to reporters at The Lariat, prohibiting “contact with any member of the Court” regarding the current student hearing McCahill, Hardy v. Kinghorn. Coll said that violators could be held in contempt of court.

On February 10, the judicial board nullified the order after Baylor’s student activities department affirmed that the student court lacked the authority to issue no-contact orders to students not involved in current proceedings.

Calling the student court a “learning environment,” Burchett said the administration expects missteps when student officials encounter complex situations but seeks “to walk alongside students and help them to ensure that wise and prudent decisions are being made.” Barchett said that McCahill, Hardy v. Kinghorn is an especially complicated case, which has attracted campus-wide attention.

“The participants are fairly new to their appointed positions,” he said. “They do have some experience serving on previous courts, but obviously, there’s a new chief justice. So I think the newness plus the complexity all do contribute to an environment that’s hard to navigate.”

The Lariat ran an editorial on Thursday describing the “symbiotic-type relationship” between student government and student press in an attempt to lessen tensions, which “block the free flow of information like an unwanted dam.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Elaina Koros by email or at (202) 974-6317.