NPR Illinois appeals to university trustees for exemption from confidentiality policy

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Journalists at NPR Illinois took a dispute with their university licensee to the school’s board of trustees Thursday, asking for relief from a policy barring them from granting anonymity to students reporting incidents of sexual harassment on campus.

The conflict between the Springfield station and the University of Illinois arose after NPR Illinois and ProPublica investigated the university’s handling of sexual misconduct cases involving professors. The reporting, first published in August, found that the university had protected professors from consequences after they had been implicated in harassment cases.

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

University of Illinois officials told station journalists that they could not make that promise. The university said the journalists, who are university employees, were subject to Title IX requirements to disclose details of alleged sexual misconduct to the university, including names of individuals reporting incidents. The university denied a station appeal to the school’s ethics officer for an exemption.

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.

But reporter Rachel Otwell and editor Mary Hansen say this workaround is imperfect and is hampering their reporting. Hansen told trustees at their Thursday meeting in Chicago that the university’s policy forces victims to choose between speaking to journalists and triggering the Title IX process or not speaking up at all.

“It is not a way to build trust with vulnerable sources,” Hansen told the board Thursday. “The university is telling victims they can only talk to NPR journalists if they are also willing to inform the Title IX office. … This is problematic.”

The university’s policy is “ill-considered, counterproductive and legally questionable,” said David Greising, president of the Better Government Association, a watchdog organization that focuses on Illinois’ government. 

In remarks to the board, Greising said NPR Illinois’ reporting has shown the university has a conflict of interest. “Concern for the school’s reputation and fears about legal liability overrode the university’s obligation to protect [victims] and adequately discipline harassers,” he said. 

BGA filed a Freedom of Information Act request regarding the legal basis for the university’s decision and was denied, Greising said. BGA is going to court to require the university to turn over relevant documents, according to Greising.

“This is more than a theoretical argument,” Greising said. “The issues at hand go to the crux of the rights the university is claiming to protect: the Title IX rights of individuals on campus to live and work in an environment free from harassment.”

Colleen Connell, attorney and executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said the university is violating survivors’ autonomy to decide whether and when they need confidentiality about their disclosures, which hurts the university’s “purported objective” of protecting them from gender-based violence.

“A reversal of the contested policy will leave NPR Illinois reporters able to carry on the best traditions of their profession; good, solid reporting that provides needed exploration about a serious problem affecting our society.”

Colleen Connell, Executive Director, ACLU of Illinois

“I want to emphasis the important role journalists have played by revealing the criminal sexual misconduct on the part of powerful men across many institutions and many industries,” Connell said. “A reversal of the contested policy will leave NPR Illinois reporters able to carry on the best traditions of their profession; good, solid reporting that provides needed exploration about a serious problem affecting our society. The university should not interfere with reporters’ ability to do their jobs independently, thoroughly and ethically.”

Organizations including the ACLU of Illinois, the Illinois News Broadcasters Association, the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation and the National Women’s Law Center have written letters in support of NPR Illinois, as well as the station’s community advisory board.

A letter to the university board from the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press was co-signed by more than 20 other media organizations, including Politico, the American Society of Magazine Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Committee to Protect the Journalists, Student Press Law Center and the Online News Association. The UIS Campus Senate also supported the station in a resolution.

The ACLU detailed several legal arguments that the policy violated the intent of the Title IX law as well as the First Amendment. Title IX is a federal civil rights act passed in 1972 that is intended to provide equal educational opportunities for men and women.

“We urge the board to consider the lessons students learn from all of this,” the ACLU said. “For survivors of sexual misconduct, the lesson may be that the university respects its own procedures more than it respects their decisions about whether, how, and to whom they discuss their experience. For journalism majors and student journalists, the lesson may be that journalistic standards and ethics are not very important. For others, the lesson may be that the powerful support a free and independent press, until the press speaks truth to power.”

Hansen told Current that it appeared trustees were listening and that she is hopeful a solution can be found. The board released a statement Thursday stating that it is “committed to working on a solution” to balance the Title IX process with journalistic independence. Trustees took no action on the issue at the meeting.

Meanwhile, trustees did adopt the recommendations of a task force focused on issues of sexual misconduct, which the university formed last year following NPR Illinois’ initial investigation. The recommendations include changing the definitions of sexual misconduct, prohibiting faculty from sexual or amorous relations with undergraduate students or with any graduate student in the same academic unit, requiring new employees to allow release of findings of sexual misconduct or harassment from previous employers, and prohibiting confidentiality agreements when an employee is dismissed for sexual misconduct.

The resolution adopted by the board said that each university in the UI system will have to implement the recommendations and report to the board of trustees on its work, coordinating with the task force.

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