NEW YORK — Over 30 racist and anti-Semitic incidents have occurred at Syracuse University since Nov. 7, 2019. The Daily Orange, SU’s student paper, has spent months covering the incidents, but has struggled to get the information they need because administration and protesters are hesitant to speak with or provide information to reporters.
SU Chancellor Kent Syverud said three students were responsible for some of the incidents, and some are being punished, but that’s about all The Daily Orange knows. The school won’t disclose their names, which incidents they’re responsible for or the specifics of their punishments.
SU is a private university, so they aren’t bound to First Amendment protections like public schools. Administrators have more freedom to decide what to tell the public and what not to disclose.
“It can be frustrating at times just knowing it’s impossible to compel a private university to release information to your readers,” Casey Darnell, the digital editor at The Daily Orange said. “This is really important to the SU community and we just don’t have answers for them. More and more incidents keep happening, and people are asking when is this going end, but we know as much as they do.”
Despite not having all the information, the staff of The Daily Orange is working to provide comprehensive coverage for their readers. Reporters check the university police department’s bias incident report every couple of hours to see if new incidents have occurred. They’ve written over 100 stories about the incidents and the resulting protests.
This is really important to the SU community and we just don’t have answers for them
“We decided last semester that we wanted to create a timeline so we can keep track of the information and have all of it in one place so it’s accessible for the public,” Darnell said.
The timeline and map show all the incidents dating back to November including drivers shouting racist slurs at students, homophobic and racist graffiti, and harrassment against Asian American students. None of the incidents have escalated to physical altercations.
Syverud did suspend a fraternity that was responsible for yelling a racist slur at a black woman in November. He also suspended all fraternity social activities for the rest of the fall semester. It is unclear whether the same students were involved in later incidents.
The Daily Orange also extensively covered protests against the administration’s handling of the hate acts, despite both the protesters and the administration declining or just not answering requests for interviews.
there’s tension from all sides on how we’ve been covering the incidents
SU media relations didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
SU said they’re withholding information about the three students found responsible for incidents because of the Family and Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which is designed to protect students’ privacy.
SPLC Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand said it’s true the school can’t release information that would identify individual students responsible, but pointed out that as a private school, SU isn’t bound by public records law anyway. So, the school is legally justified in withholding these records even if they don’t fall under FERPA.
“Because they are a private school, there isn’t an open records law requiring them to release anything,” Hiestand said. “If they do use the FERPA shield, it’s more for the PR front than anything.”
Darnell said that if the names of the three students responsible can’t be released, the public deserves to at least know what they did, and the sanctions against the three students, to determine if their conduct charge is equal to the offense.
At a Feb. 19 University Senate meeting, Syverud said they suspended students, but according to Darnell, they haven’t told the public how many of the three were punished, or which incidents they’re responsible for.
Darnell said a group of primarily black organizers on campus called #NotAgainSU demanded that the university release the information. They also began protesting these racist incidents being “swept under the rug” by administrators.
A group of the protesters have been occupying a building on campus since Feb. 14, and they plan to stay until the chancellor meets their demands. Their demands range from calling for the chancellor’s resignation to revising the campus protest policy to a tuition freeze. Over 30 students were suspended on the first night of the occupation — the university suspended a black student who wasn’t even at the protest. Those suspensions were later lifted.
Darnell said it’s been difficult to report these stories when SU administration and protesters are both reluctant to speak with the paper.
“Of course it’s disturbing and upsetting that these incidents keep happening, but as far as being unbiased on the protesters claims and the university’s side of things, we’ve been trying to fact check both sides and leave out things that seem exaggerated or alarmist,” Darnell said. “But that isn’t always possible because the university can decide what they want to comment on.”
Because the university has made it difficult to verify information, Darnell said The Daily Orange has had to leave out certain claims they aren’t sure are factually accurate.
“The protesters get mad when you don’t present their story the way they want. It seems like there’s tension from all sides on how we’ve been covering the incidents,” Darnell said.
When Daily Orange staffers asked the protesters’ public relations person for comment, the person told the rest of the protesters not to speak with reporters.
When protesters have agreed to interviews, it’s been under the condition that their names be left out — something The Daily Orange is hesitant to do. Ethically, reporters should only offer a source anonymity if naming them would put them in some form of harm, Darnell said. Because this group is publicly protesting, they typically wouldn’t fall into that category. Still, The Daily Orange has granted anonymity in some cases because having no comment from protesters would compromise the story.
It’s this questioning of the core role of the press. There’s this fundamental lack of understanding of what our job is
“If we didn’t grant anonymity, we wouldn’t be able to quote anyone at all — then we’d get more accusations of not presenting both sides,” Darnell said in an email.
A #NotAgainSU representative said they wouldn’t grant an interview with the Student Press Law Center unless the student organizer could go unnamed. The representative said organizers have gotten death threats and are concerned for their safety. SPLC decided against granting anonymity given that students are publicly protesting and therefore would not be under greater risk for having spoken to the media.
Other college news outlets have faced similar struggles with covering student protests. The Harvard Crimson came under fire for asking ICE for comment about Abolish ICE protests on campus last September, according to the New York Times. More than 1,000 people signed a petition to have The Crimson stop calling ICE for comment. The Crimson was applauded by professional journalists for defending the decision and explaining to their readers that asking all involved parties for comment is standard, ethical reporting procedure.
On the other hand, The Daily Northwestern bowed to student criticism and apologized for posting names and photos of protesters at a Jeff Sessions event in November after some of the student protestors expressed concern. Journalists largely criticized this decision, saying the student reporters should have kept the photos and names up.
“It’s amazing how this is all coming up right now,” Hiestand said. “It’s this questioning of the core role of the press. There’s this fundamental lack of understanding of what our job is and what we’re supposed to do.”
Battling the professionals
When the hate incidents began in November, The Daily Orange had to compete with a lot of national media coverage. But Darnell said they almost preferred it that way, because now that the attention has dwindled, there seems to be less concern for what’s happening at SU.
“There’s less weight behind us writing a story and it’s harder to resolve anything when there’s less people who are actually concerned,” Darnell said. “It seems like people care less as of recent, which is a little bit discouraging.”
National attention may have waned, but students at SU still want answers.
“The campus has been waiting for a resolution to these hate incidents occurring over and over,” Darnell said. “There’s been demands for the university to release this information, so it will be interesting to see what they say going forward.”
Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our weekly email newsletter.