A University of Illinois policy requiring NPR member station reporters to disclose information about sources who say they were sexually harassed or assaulted is coming under fire from media organizations and free-speech advocates, who say the rule will have a chilling effect on reporting about sexual misconduct.
An investigation published in August by NPR Illinois and the nonprofit outlet ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network found that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had repeatedly protected the reputations of professors who had been accused of sexual misconduct. Along with the articles, they asked people who had experienced sexual misconduct at Illinois colleges and universities to share their stories via an online form. The form specified that the accounts would not be shared or published without permission.
NPR Illinois reported that after the investigation was published, the university, which owns the license for the station, said that its journalists could not promise confidentiality to students, employees or faculty members in the University of Illinois system who contacted them to report sexual misconduct.
The journalists were considered “responsible employees,” meaning that they were required to pass on the allegations to the institution because of Title IX rules, the university said. Title IX is a 1972 civil rights law that protects people from sex-based discrimination in education programs or other activities that receive federal funds.
The station’s leadership and staff published an open letter to the university asking for an exemption to that policy. They argued that prohibiting journalists from receiving confidential information was “antithetical to freedom of the press and editorial independence.” The signees wrote that the university’s counseling center was exempt from the rules, and requested a similar policy.
The letter noted that the policy has broad implications for NPR member stations around the country. While member stations are independently owned and operated, about two-thirds of the stations are either licensed to, or affiliated with, colleges or universities.
Isabel Lara, a spokeswoman for NPR in Washington, said in an email that the organization “believes it is critically important for member station newsrooms to have independence in news gathering and editorial decisions.” She noted that while NPR Illinois is part of the University of Illinois system, the university has no editorial control or oversight of the content it produces.
More than 20 media organizations also signed on to a Nov. 6 letter from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press calling on the university’s board of trustees to change the policy. They included Dow Jones & Company, Politico, and the Committee to Protect Journalists. The letter argued that the policy would chill coverage of the university’s handling of sexual misconduct cases, and that suppressing coverage would allow systemic abuse to continue.
“The First Amendment, the Illinois reporter’s privilege and the purpose of Title IX itself all provide support for an exemption in this case,” the letter said.
On Monday, senior lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union sent the board another letter, which was obtained by The New York Times. The lawyers, Rebecca K. Glenberg and Sandra S. Park, argued that it was crucial to allow people who experienced harassment or assault to seek help or publicize their stories without setting off an investigation.
A survivor of sexual misconduct may choose to confide in a reporter for any number of reasons. They may want their story to help others in similar circumstances but do not want to be further identified for fear of retaliation. They may know that their experience is representative of a larger issue that should be more widely known. They may simply be uncomfortable invoking the university’s formal accountability mechanisms. In any case, the university should not close off this option for confidential disclosure.
But the university has not budged. In a statement, Thomas P. Hardy, a University of Illinois spokesman, wrote that “making sure that all employees report any instance of sexual misconduct is part of how we protect students.”
“We have reviewed the legal and policy implications,” the statement said. “The University of Illinois system has determined that requiring media employees to adhere to the ‘responsible employee’ reporting requirements is in the best interest of our students and would not violate any constitutional or other legal protections.”
For the time being, ProPublica, which is not subject to the university’s rules, is screening the stories being submitted, and said it would not share the information with NPR employees if doing so would go against the source’s wishes.
Mary Hansen, an editor for the project at NPR Illinois, said that the university had not asked the station to identify sources for work that was already published. But the policy was preventing journalists from working on potential follow-up stories.
“This is having an effect on our reporting right now,” she said.
Ms. Hansen was planning to travel to Chicago on Thursday to voice her concerns at a meeting of the university’s board of trustees.
In their letter, the A.C.L.U. lawyers raised questions about the university’s motives, since NPR Illinois and ProPublica’s reporting had portrayed administrators negatively. The investigation had concluded that the university failed to hold faculty members accountable after repeated allegations of sexual harassment. Some of the professors accused of misconduct remained on the payroll or were able to resign quietly, aided by confidentiality agreements.
“Regardless of the administration’s intent, the mere suspicion that campus officials are suppressing journalism that is critical of them should be embarrassing to an institution that values the pursuit of truth,” the lawyers wrote.
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