NPR Illinois clashes with university licensee over coverage of harassment on campus

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An entrance to the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois.

Journalists at NPR Illinois are pushing back against a University of Illinois policy that they say is hampering their reporting on cases of sexual harassment at the university, which is also the station’s licensee.

The conflict arose after the Springfield station and ProPublica undertook an investigation of how the university has handled sexual assault cases. The reporting, first published in August, found that the university had protected multiple professors from consequences after they had been implicated in cases of sexual harassment.

In one case involving complaints by three women, a professor was placed on paid leave and allowed to resign while continuing to draw his salary. The university agreed to keep the terms of his departure secret. Other professors were likewise paid during time off and allowed to resign or even kept on faculty with records sealed.

The story included a call for sources to share personal experiences with harassment at Illinois universities, colleges and community colleges with reporters. The station promised not to share respondents’ personal information with third parties without their explicit permission.

Several days after the story was published, University of Illinois officials told the station that its journalists, who are university employees, were subject to Title IX requirements that they disclose details of alleged sexual misconduct to the university, including names of individuals reporting misconduct. Officials told reporter Rachel Otwell that she could not promise anonymity to students who shared information. NPR Illinois appealed to the university’s ethics officer Sept. 16 for an exemption, which was denied.

ProPublica senior investigative reporter T. Christian Miller said in a Twitter thread that the University of Illinois is “effectively chilling reporting on how it treats victims of sexual assault.” Deputy Managing Editor Charles Ornstein wrote in a column that ProPublica will continue to assist with NPR Illinois’ reporting, using its independence to shield victims at the university.

“People should feel secure sharing information with us,” Ornstein wrote. “We intend to protect their ability to do so.”

Station leadership and staff wrote an open letter to university President Timothy Killeen and Chancellor Susan Koch Oct. 10 asking them to reconsider the decision.

“Keeping source information confidential is a common practice for investigative journalists,” the letter said. “Asking journalists to reveal sources or prohibiting them from receiving confidential information is antithetical to freedom of the press and editorial independence.”

“If the policy is examined in the light of the impact on the victims, the policy simply doesn’t make any sense.”

Don Craven, general counsel, Illinois News Broadcasters Association

In the letter, NPR Illinois pointed out that the university’s actions could affect many other public media journalists who want to promise sources anonymity because many university licensees have similar Title IX policies. Approximately two-thirds of NPR stations nationwide are licensed through institutions of higher education, according to NPR.

“The University of Illinois has the opportunity to be a leader in standing up for the First Amendment rights of university-affiliated news organizations, while balancing its goal of building a campus free of sexual harassment, misconduct and discrimination,” the letter said.

No plans to reconsider

NPR Illinois editor Mary Hansen, who worked on the reporting with Otwell, said she hopes the university leaders or the board of trustees will act on the issue. “They have the ability to change this policy themselves,” she said. “That would be our preference and not to have to go to legal recourse.”

But Thomas Hardy, executive director of university relations, said in an email that he was not aware of any plans to consider changing the policy.

“Our primary goal is to enhance campus safety, and making sure that all employees report any instance of sexual misconduct is part of how we protect students and their welfare,” Hardy wrote. “We have received outside counsel on this issue and reviewed the legal and policy implications. 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.”

To continue receiving tips, ProPublica took over handling contacts from sources. It passes on tips to NPR Illinois only if the person is affiliated with a different university or if a Title IX complaint has already been filed.

The workaround is hampering NPR Illinois’ reporting, Hansen said. “It’s definitely an impediment,” she said. “There are numerous tips ProPublica has right now they’re holding on to, because we would have to report them to the university.”

The firewall can’t be a long-term solution because it’s “impractical” and goes against journalistic standards, Otwell said.

“Once the project is over, I worry about how to go about reporting on this issue,” she said. “Students, faculty and employees deserve to speak freely and openly with the media.”

“What the university has done here is make it harder for Rachel and Mary — or any other reporter at the university — to do their jobs,” said Don Craven, general counsel for the Illinois News Broadcasters Association.

Craven said he believes that NPR Illinois is trying to uphold principles reflected by an Illinois shield law that protects journalists from having to reveal sources in court in most cases.

There is precedent for exempting employees from the Title IX requirement, Craven said. Some University of Illinois employees, including counselors at its counseling center, are exempt from the mandatory reporting policy.

“If the policy is examined in the light of the impact on the victims, the policy simply doesn’t make any sense,” Craven said. “You are removing an avenue for those victims to report wrongdoing, especially for those victims who simply don’t trust the university any further, justifiably or not.”

Hansen said she and station leaders intend to share their concerns and request for reconsideration with university trustees at their November meeting. “We are also researching our options and consulting with experts,” she said.

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