Split Personality


If reporting the news means breaking school rules, can a student really be a journalist?





College journalism professors and media advisers often instruct fledgling journalists to go to great lengths to ensure that their stories are accurate and fair.

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\n ''If your mother says she loves you, check it out,'' is a mantra commonly heard in journalism classes nationwide.

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\n But what happens when a school believes that ''checking it out'' conflicts with its disciplinary code? While some argue that colleges should not punish students for infractions that result from newsgathering, others contend that reporters should not be treated any differently from other students.

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\n Some schools' disciplinary codes are so restrictive that they limit the freedom of the campus press when applied to student journalists. Rules that are loosely worded to promote fairness or protect privacy can be used to restrict the publication of information the administration does not want aired.

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\n All of which leaves student reporters wondering what they should do when being a good journalist means breaking the rules.

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\nThe Power to Censor?

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\n Many student journalists say administrators' power to punish under the code of conduct is tantamount to the power to censor. Students may be unlikely to publish an article or research a story that the administration does not like if it exposes them to disciplinary action, which can at worst mean expulsion from school. Even infractions that result in less serious punishments will blemish a student's educational record.

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\n Paul McMasters, The Freedom Forum's First Amendment Ombudsman and former president of the Society of Professional Journalists, likened the constraints that a code of conduct places on student journalists to the legal limitations set for the professional press.

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\n ''Obviously, there is a professional parallel to this very dilemma and that is that professional journalists often find themselves in a situation where they are either in a legal or an ethical conundrum about getting a story they believe to be a necessity,'' McMasters said.

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\n But unlike the professional press, student journalists are constrained by both the law and their school's disciplinary code -- which, in many cases, is more restrictive.

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\n ''Student codes most of the time are unconstitutional,'' said Nat Hentoff, a nationally syndicated columnist and First Amendment advocate.

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\nRecent Incidents

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\n The tenuous balance between the First Amendment rights of student journalists and the responsibility of judicial officers to enforce campus codes of conduct has recently been tested on several college campuses.

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\n At Pennsylvania's West Chester University, several members of the student newspaper staff were punished during the spring semester for using a computer glitch to gain early access to the school's online class registration system.

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\n Even though the student journalists accessed the site only to verify whether the glitch existed, campus administrators initially considered punishing them even more severely than other students who accessed the site in hopes of getting the first pick of classes.

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\n The Quad staffers who gained access to the site did in fact register for classes, but editor Aaron Benson said the students voluntarily removed the classes from their schedules after they had verified that they would not automatically be purged by the university's computer system.

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\n Eventually, all of the implicated students received the same punishment from Nicole McClenic, the school's judicial affairs officer. But McClenic said she originally considered requiring one of the student journalists involved to spend time in a professional newsroom to learn about journalistic ethics.

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\n Even though she ultimately opted against the additional measure, McClenic said she thought the extra sanction might be a good way to teach the student journalist a lesson about ''responsible journalism.''

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\n But many free-press supporters would argue that responsible journalism is exactly what the West Chester students were doing. The editors insist there was no intent for personal gain, and the student reporters' actions actually helped to uncover an important problem.

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\n The student newspaper editor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia also was punished recently for actions she claims were part of a legitimate investigation on behalf of the newspaper. (See Officials.)

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\n Sentinel editor Becca Garber was removed from her post and barred from holding a leadership position on campus during the fall semester after she threatened to write a story revealing that two students did not meet a campus organization's minimum GPA requirement for its officers.

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\n Garber contends that a confidential source gave her the grade information, which the university is barred from releasing under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA only prohibits universities from releasing student information and cannot be applied to the student media.

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\n But campus administrators say they believe Garber accessed the information herself and was not working on a story -- an action they see as a violation of a section of the code of conduct designed to protect students' privacy.

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\n Diane Walker, the university's judicial programs coordinator, said that even if she did not access the information herself, Garber's actions violated the code of conduct because she distributed private information about other students.

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\n In addition to using the code of conduct to punish students for their newsgathering techniques, some campus administrators have gone so far as to use the disciplinary code to punish student journalists for failing to publish certain information.

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\n Administrators at Georgia State University have alleged that two of the school's student newspaper editors violated multiple sections of the school's code of conduct when they decided not to publish several letters to the editor. (See Editor.)

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\n Although the letters did not meet the paper's length and style requirements, the editors were found guilty of having violated the sections of the conduct code designed to ensure an ''orderly climate'' and -- ironically -- protect ''freedom of expression.''

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\n McMasters said this was a clear example of a case in which a conduct code was being used unfairly to compel speech.

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\n ''In that instance there is a very clear violation of the First Amendment rights of the student press,'' he said. ''Compelled speech cannot be free speech. The student press is not credible if it is subject to compelled speech by the administration or by the majority.

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\n ''Taken to its logical extreme, a student newspaper becomes a bulletin board and not a newspaper--absent any standards, absent any independence and therefore robbed of any credibility,'' McMasters said.

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\nNothing New

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\n Despite a number of recent examples, tension between free speech and a school's code of conduct is not a new phenomenon.

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\n In 1991, at Southern Methodist University in Texas, the student newspaper editor was charged with misconduct for printing a verdict of the campus judicial board.

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\n Student government officials claimed that Daily Campus editor Mitch Whitten violated a portion of the school's code of conduct that forbids Southern Methodist media from reporting on judicial proceedings before a final and binding outcome is reached.

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\n Whitten decided to run a story about allegations that a campus judicial board had found a student athlete guilty of sexual assault. But student government officials -- who ended up dropping their claim on the day the complaint against Whitten was to be heard -- originally claimed that the editor had violated the conduct code because it was unclear at the time that the story ran whether the accused would appeal the judicial board's decision.

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\n Mark Witherspoon, now the executive director of the Iowa College Media Association, was working as The Daily Campus' adviser in 1991. He said that although the charges were dropped, the incident raised important free-speech questions at Southern Methodist.

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\n Witherspoon said subjecting students to punishment under the disciplinary code for reporting the outcome of a judicial proceeding conflicted with another portion of the code designed to protect press freedom.

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\n He said he encouraged Whitten to fight the charges so that future editors would not be subject to censorship under the code of conduct. According to Witherspoon, The Daily Campus enlisted several Dallas media outlets to help spread word of the charges -- an effort he believes persuaded student government officials to drop their complaint.

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\n Once the charges were dropped, Witherspoon said he began to focus attention on working to reform the code to allow student journalists to report on campus judicial proceedings more easily.

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\n ''Any time you have some kind of limit on access, I think there is a chilling effect,'' Witherspoon said.

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\n But a decade after Witherspoon began to seek reform of the disciplinary code, Daily Campus editor Sonya Cole said regulations barring journalists from reporting on disciplinary proceedings were being enforced more strictly than ever at Southern Methodist.

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\n Georgia is presently the only state where courts have ruled that campus judicial proceedings cannot be closed to the public.

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\nNo Special Treatment

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\n In spite of examples where student journalists were punished under a school's disciplinary code, members of the Association of Judicial Affairs Advisers -- a nationwide consortium of college judicial officers -- say they are unaware of any cases in which student journalists were punished because of their newsgathering activities.

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\n Linda Rowe, the judicial programs director at Marshall University and the AJAA's secretary, said she ''cannot recall a case in which a student journalist was alleged to violate the conduct code while investigating a story,'' nor was she ''aware of any studies or statistics on the question.''

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\n Rowe added that she also was not aware of any situation in which the fact that the student accused of violating the disciplinary code was also a student journalist affected the sanction the student was given.

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\n ''I am personally acquainted with many, many judicial officers around the country, and it is impossible for me to imagine that a student journalist's case would be handled more or less leniently because of the student's status,'' she said.

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\n Although she said the circumstances of a particular case should be considered to determine punishment, Rowe said she did not believe the fact that a journalist was engaging in newsgathering should exempt him or her from the disciplinary code.

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\n ''I cannot imagine a scenario where we would excuse a rule violation on that basis,'' she said.

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\nPursue with Caution

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\n Even though they might face disciplinary consequences, Hentoff said student journalists should not shirk from publishing stories that might violate another students' privacy -- as long as they have verified the story's factual accuracy.

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\n ''Once you are on the track of a story and you've got reasonable belief that what you are after is important -- it has to be very important, central to the story -- then sometimes you can t avoid doing it,'' he said.

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\n McMasters also said it was a difficult issue, but stressed the importance of pursuing investigative stories.

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\n ''Student journalists who take initiative and try to do their best to inform their readers ought to be applauded,'' he said. ''But they also should take care to constrain such efforts in cases that might jeopardize their time at school.''

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\n For example, McMasters said it might have been wiser for the West Chester journalists to interview students who had illegally accessed the registration site, rather than resorting to accessing the site themselves. That way, he said, they would have been able to keep themselves from being mixed up in conduct that could be considered in violation of school rules.

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\n By refraining from questionable conduct themselves, McMasters said student journalists not only protect themselves from disciplinary sanctions and censorship but produce better stories as well.

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\n All journalists, he said, should aspire to the highest ethical standard and avoid questionable activity as much as possible.

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\n ''Student journalists should make every effort to be ethical and legitimate in pursuing a story because not only does it subject them to possible punishment, it devalues the credibility of their story,'' McMasters said.


Fall 2001, reports