U. of Tulsa administrator threatens to punish student journalists for investigating student’s punishment over Facebook posts

OKLAHOMA — When George “Trey” Barnett was suspended from the University of Tulsa without a disciplinary hearing for violating the institution’s harassment policy and for sharing information about his pending disciplinary case, he asked the student newspaper to investigate.

But when two student reporters began to research his case, a university administrator said they, too, could be in violation of university policy if they printed the “confidential information.”

Despite the perceived threats, the student newspaper, The Collegian, ran the story on Monday, alleging that the university violated its disciplinary policies when they failed to let Barnett defend himself and denied his appeal. The newspaper also ran a story outlining a Jan. 23 meeting two editors and the newspaper’s adviser had with a university spokeswoman, who said the paper could “violate the university policies” if they published anything the university deemed confidential. The students recorded the conversation.

The university spokeswoman, Mona Chamberlin, told the Student Press Law Center the university does not plan to pursue disciplinary action against Kyle Walker, The Collegian’s editor in chief, or Conor Fellin, the paper’s managing editor, because they ran the stories.

“No one threatened Collegian staff in any way,” she said, adding that she is unaware of any policy The Collegian could have violated.

In March, April and September 2014, Barnett’s fiancé — who is not a student — posted to Facebook allegedly defamatory statements about three TU professors and one student, and tagged Barnett in the posts, according to the disciplinary decision.

On Sept. 30, the university’s vice provost gave Barnett a letter saying he was suspended from several of his classes and that a complaint was filed against him. On Oct. 3, Barnett received a formal complaint accusing him of harassment, which he then shared with his fiancé. After his fiancé provided the university with two affidavits saying he was solely responsible for the posts, Barnett was suspended without a hearing on Oct. 24. He met with the vice provost to discuss the decision and recorded that meeting.

According to the decision, Barnett was punished for violating three provisions of the harassment policy: defamation, unreasonably interfering with the academic environment and a breach of confidentiality when he shared information about the harassment case against him with his fiancé — a potential witness for his defense.

“In that context, it’s hard not to hear ‘we could take disciplinary action against you’ when someone says ‘it would violate university policy to publish or share information the school deems to be confidential,’” Walker said.

According to the private university’s harassment policy, everyone involved in a harassment case is not allowed to talk about it to third parties, but there is an exception for the accused so they may gather witnesses for their defense.

Walker said he was surprised when Chamberlin said he and Fellin could be punished for writing about the case. He said the paper had previously written stories the administration wasn’t pleased with, but punishment was never a concern. He said Chamberlin claimed some of the information they had received for their story was confidential and publishing the information could be a violation of the Student Code of Conduct.

“Twice I asked them what information was confidential,” Walker said. “They never gave me a list. I twice asked them for a copy of the disciplinary policies with the relevant sections highlighted, so that I would know what they were saying I would violate. I never got that either.”

Chamberlin said the documents The Collegian maintained had the names of students, faculty and staff who were involved in the Barnett case, which is confidential.

In the meeting, Chamberlin told Walker, Fellin and Dan Bewley, the newspaper’s adviser, that the university had consulted their attorney and “encouraged them to seek legal guidance before going to press since they had been given confidential information,” Chamberlin said.

Walker said he reached out to Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, for legal advice. After speaking with the institution’s attorney, LoMonte advised Walker to proceed with the story.

After the stories were published, university President Steadman Upham sent a university-wide email Tuesday saying The Collegian’s story was incorrect. Barnett was not involved in a student conduct case, which would have required a hearing. Instead, Barnett was being investigated under a harassment policy, which includes a confidentiality provision and does not require a hearing, Upham said.

Walker published a response to Upham’s email on Tuesday saying the paper stands by its reporting and that “the Policy on Harassment states multiple times that the Student Code of Conduct still applies in harassment cases.”

Though the school has a policy solely addressing harassment, harassment is listed as a violation in the code of conduct.

According to the code of conduct, university officials will not release disciplinary records to third parties without the consent of all students accused in the complaint. But Barnett gave Walker the records, not the university.

Contact SPLC staff writer Mariana Viera by email or at (202) 478-1926.