CALIFORNIA — Mt. San Antonio College student reporter Nick Moore, the sports editor of student publication SAC.Media, was shocked when he opened his mail in late October and found a letter telling him he faced disciplinary action and could face suspension or expulsion for seeking information at the scene of a medical emergency. Adviser Toni Albertson was shocked, too — but not entirely.
While the disciplinary complaint is the first one filed against a student reporter in Albertson’s time as adviser, it comes after a long, fraught history of student press access issues, she said. An April 2014 editorial in the digital student publication MountieWire.com described the evasiveness of the Mt. SAC public safety department, which editors say has refused to speak with student reporters directly, barred student photographers from accessing public areas and incorrectly cited HIPAA in order to block press access.
In the late September incident that spurred the disciplinary complaint, Moore and three other student journalists followed the sound of sirens to the campus health center, where Moore said a health center worker refused to answer his questions, citing HIPAA — the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which protects the privacy of medical records. He told her she was applying the law incorrectly — which Albertson said is common on campus, particularly among public safety staff.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, hospital directory information — including patients’ names, locations within the hospital and general conditions — should be released to the news media. Patients must be informed about their directory information and given the option to object to disclosure, but in an emergency when the patient has not had the chance to give consent, the hospital can still release the information if the release is deemed in the patient’s best interest. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has compiled a reporter’s guide to HIPAA.
“They always cite HIPAA, every single time,” Albertson said. “This is nothing new. So when Nick came back and told me what had happened, I knew this was typical. I said, ‘Well, were you professional?’ [He said] ‘Yes, I was professional. We tried to just ask questions and then we left.’”
Moore then asked a public safety officer what was happening. He declined to answer. Then, another health center employee told him he could not be on the premises, citing HIPAA again. He explained that the law did not prohibit him from being there. Fellow student reporter Mercedes Vossburg asked a front office clerk what was going on, but the clerk said she could not give any information due to HIPAA.
Another public safety officer confirmed with the reporters that the student involved in the emergency was female and that she was transported to the hospital by ambulance. Moore went to the front desk — a public area — and asked the clerk for more information, which she declined to give, citing HIPAA once again.
He then left the premises and wrote the story with the information he had. Moore said the disciplinary complaint accused him of “bullying” his way into the center, but he felt he remained calm and professional.
“I’ve never bullied a person in my life,” he said.
When he first saw the complaint, he didn’t think it was a big deal, he said. But when he met with Andi Sims, director of student life, in a student discipline conference, he said he felt intimidated.
“It was like being interrogated,” Moore said. “It seemed like I needed a lawyer for something like this.”
Sims declined to comment on student discipline cases, citing federal student privacy law.
“It seemed like whatever I said, it was going to get me expelled or suspended,” Moore said. He said Sims asked him to sign a disciplinary contract that requires him to attend two student conduct classes, after which he would not have to attend a suspension or expulsion hearing. He complied.
Moore later sought legal assistance from the Student Press Law Center and learned that his First Amendment rights had been violated; universities cannot punish student reporters for doing their jobs. He is currently being advised on his next steps in the case.
Albertson said that while the HIPAA issues are slowly improving — one of the public safety department’s new leaders understands the law better than others have, she said — student press access remains patchy at Mt. SAC.
“Nobody understands anything about the rights of student media,” she said. “They just think, ‘Go away, you’re not allowed to take my picture, you’re not allowed to be here.’ It’s worse at colleges where even the administrators don’t understand. We have to educate them and tell them — and then they still do it.”
Contact SPLC staff writer Tara Jeffries at (202) 974-6317 or by email.