Columbia revises Rules of Conduct; still no strong protections for student journalists covering protests



Columbia University recently revamped its Rules of Conduct for the first time in almost 30 years, but the changes do not include strong protections for student reporters covering protests — despite three student journalists receiving disciplinary letters for covering a demonstration earlier this year.

Instead, the Columbia Board of Trustees and the University Senate approved an exception for student journalists so that they are allowed to work from a designated area separate from a noncompliant protest group.

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The Rules of Conduct revision was adopted and implemented this month by the Board of Trustees.

The University Senate – composed of faculty, staff and students – will now create a set of guidelines that lay out specific protections for journalists covering protests, according to the Columbia Spectator.

Sharyn O’Halloran, chair of the University Senate, told the Spectator that the committee would be considering the advice of experts and best practices among peer institutions when developing protections for the press.

“Through the process governing the implementation of the revised rules, the Rules Committee will continue to engage with the Columbia community, consider diverse experiences across peer institutions, and strive to adopt best practices, reinforcing our pledge to freedom of expression,” she said in a letter to the university community.

Without specific provisions, student journalists could face disciplinary action for reporting at unsanctioned protests — which happened to Columbia Spectator reporters in February.

According to the Spectator, three of their staffers were covering student group No Red Tape’s disruption of an information session for potential students to protest Columbia’s handling of sexual misconduct. The Spectator staffers, along with protesters, received disciplinary letters.

Ultimately, the letters did not lead to further disciplinary action, but the instance did spur the Columbia University Senate to consider including an exception for journalists in the early stages of the Rules of Conduct revisions.

However, the final version of the rules, the first revision since 1989, excluded strong protections.

At issue – how can members of the press be differentiated from a protester posting to social media or live broadcasting with apps like Periscope?

Thomas Healy, Columbia alumnus and former Baltimore Sun reporter, told the Spectator, “It's sometimes hard to distinguish between someone who is analogous to the traditional member of the media and someone who is just posting pictures of their daily activities on their Facebook timeline.”

The conundrum stumped the Senate, so the protections were put on hold. But, the University Senate did insert a provision that allows reporters to freely work from a designated area separate from the protesters violating the rules.

Student journalists across the country often encounter difficulties while covering protests, including facing arrest and detainment. In 2011, the Student Press Law Center released some tips to avoid police problems while covering protests, including carrying credentials, avoiding looking like a participant and bearing witness of any police wrongdoing toward the press.

Other additions to Columbia’s Rules of Conduct include a section detailing the

rights of the respondent, i.e., the one being charged, such as “respect, dignity, and sensitivity,” “adequate time to prepare for a hearing” and “presence of an advisor throughout the process.”

Two violations regarding aiding and abetting those in violation of rules were removed and some restrictions were softened, allowing for more leeway for demonstrators.

Changes in Phrasing

Original

Revised

[Protest] interferes over a very short period of time with entrance to, exit from, passage within, or use of, a University facility but does not substantially disrupt any University function;


[Protest] interferes over a short period of time with entrance to, exit from, passage within, or use of, a University facility but does not substantially disrupt any University function;

Persons may not enter a private office unless invited and then not in excess of the number designated or invited by the occupant.

Persons may not enter a private office unless invited and then not substantially in excess of the number designated or invited by the occupant.

Passage through reception areas leading to private offices must not be obstructed.

Passage through reception areas leading to private offices must not be obstructed for more than a short period of time.

Tagged: Columbia University, protestors, recent-news