Brandeis University drops investigation into student journalists’ coverage of sexual assault event

MASSACHUSETTS — Despite threats of legal action and formal disciplinary charges over coverage of last year’s “Take Back the Night” march, Brandeis University officials have cleared student journalists of all charges.

After almost a year of controversy, the editorial board of The Justice, a student newspaper at Brandeis, published an editorial on Tuesday informing its readership of the legal battles and public backlash it faced for coverage of a cross-campus march in protest of sexual and domestic violence.

In April 2015, Abby Patkin, the paper’s news editor, covered the university’s annual TBTN march — a public event on campus where students gather to share their personal stories of sexual assault as part of a national awareness campaign. In an article titled, “University community marches for awareness in ‘Take Back the Night’,” Patkin described the importance raising awareness about sexual assault on college campuses and anonymously quoted some experiences that were shared during the event.

Patkin reported how some students spoke of the “institutional betrayal” they felt during the investigation and hearing processes at Brandeis, while others said they were too scared to come forward at all.

The article was met with heavy criticism by the university community for Patkin’s use of anonymous quotes from people who had considered the march a “safe space.” Patkin received harassing emails, and many students and administrators demanded The Justice take down the article and issue an apology — the newspaper refused.

“[The Justice staff] received several angry emails, messages and comments that claimed the story didn’t need the quotes to accurately report the event, and that, in quoting survivors of sexual assault, we took away their autonomy over their stories,” Patkin said.

In August, Patkin — as well as Editor-in-Chief Max Moran and Managing Editor Avi Gold — received a notice from an outside law office informing her that its legal team had been hired by the university to investigate the case for a potential lawsuit.

The notice informed the students that while Massachusetts state law permits audio recording of public events, the “safe-space mentality” of TBTN made it a private affair, which is illegal to record without permission.

The editors argued that though survivors of sexual assault must be treated with deep respect by reporters, public speakers must recognize that what they say is for a “wide audience.”

“The right to record public events is a well-guarded and cherished right not only for journalists, but for activists as well,” the editorial read.

On Feb. 29, as the newspaper prepared to cover this year’s TBTN, the same editors were informed that a student had filed a complaint against them with the university about Patkin’s article the previous year. The complaint alleged The Justice violated the university’s “Electronic Device and Privacy” policy, which prohibits invasions of privacy via surreptitious audio or visual recordings.

Free press advocates flocked in support of The Justice.

On March 23, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote to Brandeis Interim President Lisa Lynch, urging the university to drop its charges against the students, as openly recording a public event and accurately and anonymously quoting public speakers does not constitute an invasion of privacy.

Two days later, the editors were informed by a Brandeis official that they had been cleared of the charges brought against them and that the university would review its privacy policy in its application to student journalists.

“If student reporters can be punished for accurately and sensitively reporting on a public event held on campus, freedom of the press does not exist,” Ari Cohn, FIRE’s senior program officer, said in a statement. “I’m relieved that Brandeis has decided to drop its investigation — an investigation that never should have been opened in the first place.

The editors told the Student Press Law Center in an interview that they believe the case was dismissed because both FIRE and Brandeis’ journalism department wrote to university administrators in defense of The Justice.

“Having the threat of sanctions looming overhead was certainly stressful,” Patkin said, “but the support and resources that the journalism program and FIRE provided us just affirmed my belief that we were doing our jobs right.”

She said without freedom of expression, a student newspaper can devolve into a “public relations firm,” rather than a news outlet.

“To make concessions when it comes to authorial freedom is to forfeit journalistic integrity and ethics,” Patkin said.

Similarly, Moran argued that a newspaper needs to have the ability to have editorial freedom in order to properly function.

He said when a newspaper makes an editorial decision based on what is popular rather than what its reporters and editors “feel is right,” it is fundamentally failing its duty to be independent.

“Independence and impartiality are all that reporters have,” Moran said.

The Justice editors said the challenges it faced throughout the year will not affect the reporting policies of the newspaper in the future.

“To cover this event — or any event, for that matter — any differently than we have in the past would constitute a failure to accurately report the story in its truest form,” Patkin said.

SPLC staff writer Kaitlin DeWulf can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6317.

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