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JMU journalists face disciplinary action after on-campus reporting

October 27, 2009

VIRGINIA -- The Judicial Affairs Office at James Madison University in Harrionsburg, Va., informed students today it intends to go ahead with disciplinary proceedings against two student journalists for their efforts in reporting a story for JMU's paper, The Breeze.

The first hearing in the process, scheduled to take place Thursday, Nov. 5, will determine whether the school will take action against the student journalists, who are accused of trespassing, disorderly conduct and non-compliance with an official request while covering a news story on campus.

Those opposed to the school's action say its decision to pursue the charges are in violation of the school's policies and the First Amendment rights guaranteed to the student reporters.

"I don't have anything against JMU," said Tim Chapman, editor-in-chief of The Breeze and one of the students facing charges. "But I'm not going to just sit back and let charges that violate the First Amendment go through."

Chapman said he is not worried about the charges, which have now garnered national media attention, because he and the other reporter were not doing anything they were not allowed to do.

"The consensus is we did nothing wrong," Chapman said. "Nobody is really worried about doing their job because of this. In the end we know the charges aren't going to stick."

The incident started when Katie Hibson, a reporter for The Breeze, went to the dorms to report on an incident that took place Saturday, Oct. 17, in which someone allegedly broke in and opened shower curtains to watch girls while they were showering.

Hibson, who was doing the story for the next day's paper, began by speaking with one of the students outside of the dorm, after which she was invited in to talk with other sources.

When the resident adviser caught word of what was going on, she said Hibson would have to leave.

At that point Hibson called Chapman and explained the situation.

Chapman said he printed the school's policy regarding who could come in to the dorms, and went with another reporter and resident of the dorms to investigate the situation.

They entered the building, and spoke with the RA, asking why Hibson had been asked to leave in the first place.

"The RA couldn't give a good answer," Chapman said. "Aside from that we just needed to leave."

The hall director was alerted to the situation, and placed a call, Chapman said, to who he believed was the police.

The reporters finished their interviews and left within a matter of minutes, and police never arrived at the scene.

Chapman said nothing further happened until Thursday, Oct. 22, when he received an e-mail alerting him that judicial charges had been brought against him for trespassing, disorderly conduct and non-compliance with an official request.

"I am concerned about the public perception of JMU," Chapman said. "If people continue to prove they don't understand [JMU] policies and the First Amendment, it's hard for [a First Amendment friendly] perception to stick."

Dr. Roger Soenksen, a communications professor at JMU, said it is unfortunate the school is getting negative press from the incident."It's very ironic we have this situation at an institution named after James Madison, who has been labeled the father of the Constitution," Soenksen said.

He said it is important to understand student journalists are afforded the same protections as professional journalists.

"Clearly we have a situation where people don't understand the protection afforded members of the student press under the First Amendment," he said. "I've talked with individuals who keep referring to [Chapman and Hibson] as merely students, and I am very quick to correct that and indicate they are journalists and should be treated as such according to all the rights granted to them."

Josh Bacon, the director of the Judicial Affairs Office at JMU, said it is not the intention of Judicial Affairs to limit the freedoms of the First Amendment at the school.

"We try not to charge anyone for things that fall within the guidelines of First Amendment rights, or to have policies which do so," he said.

While he could not comment on this case in particular, Bacon said the office tries to treat all students equally.

"For anyone, whether they are an athlete, in a student group, fraternity, sorority or member of the student press, they're still students and are held accountable to policies based on that fact, and not the fact that they're an athlete, or in any other group," he said.

If Chapman and Hibson are unhappy with the initial ruling, they have two chances to appeal the decision in front of different bodies before the decision is made permanent.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said he is surprised the school is continuing to pursue action against the students.

"It's an action so contradictory to the ordinary meaning of the First Amendment that it's astonishing they haven't backed down from it yet," he said. "A mistake this obvious shouldn't take this long to get corrected."

Goldstein said the First Amendment is intended to guard rights in situations like the one at JMU.

"I would guess when reporters started asking questions about a peeping tom, people got uncomfortable," he said. "While uncomfortable questions may be something that the school would like to avoid, uncomfortable questions are precisely what the First Amendment is designed to protect."

By Michael Edwards, SPLC staff writer

© 2009 Student Press Law Center

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