News Outlets Call University Of Illinois Policy A Reporter Gag Order

Nov 15, 2019

Credit NPR Illinois

Several media and legal organizations spoke out at a University of Illinois Board of Trustees meeting on Thursday, saying university policy is impeding reporting on sexual assault at the school.

In August, an NPR Illinois and ProPublica investigation found the university had protected multiple professors accused of sexual harassment. Reporters reviewed a total of seven cases.

As part of the reporting, NPR Illinois , which is licensed by the university, issued a call for survivors to share their experience using an online form. Reporters promised anonymity.

But days after the story was published, university officials told the station that as university employees they must share survivors names under the school’s Title IX policy.

Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination, including harassment and assault, in university programs and activities. Under Title IX, any university employee that a student could reasonably believe has the power to address sex discrimination must bring that information to the school. At the University of Illinois, employees are required to share that student’s name within 48 hours.

ProPublica Illinois continues to ask University of Illinois students to share their stories. But it isn’t connecting them with NPR Illinois because of the mandatory reporting requirements, said NPR Illinois reporter Rachel Otwell. She has been investigating sexual assault at the university for a year.

“We know [ProPublica] has dozens of tips that are relevant and I’m not able to do my job and report out,” she said.

At the board meeting Thursday, NPR Illinois, American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and the Better Government Association requested an exemption for journalists from mandatory reporting. In a statement, the university said it is committed to working on a solution.

No current source is at risk of having their information shared with the university, but reporters fear the university policy could set precedent for other public media outlets. About two-thirds of the public radio stations nationwide are affiliated with colleges.

In the last week, several organizations have also written letters to the university’s board of trustees urging them to exempt the journalists.

The National Women’s Law Center wrote that the university is violating survivor's autonomy and undermining campus safety. The ACLU of Illinois says the university’s treatment of the journalists is contrary to its own values of freedom of speech. The Better Government Association pointed to U.S. and Illinois Supreme Court decisions protecting journalists’ confidential sources.

“Protecting the first amendment rights of NPR Illinois is more than just [being] compliant with the law, it continues to offer victims a neutral and compassionate person who will listen to their story,” BGA President David Greising told board members Thursday.

In its statement, the university said its goal isn’t to get in the way of news gathering.

“We realize that having journalists who are also university employees creates a unique situation, and we are committed to working on a solution to support two very important interests,” the statement said. “We have no intention of stifling the news gathering process.”

On Thursday, the board also voted in support of making recommended changes to the university’s sexual assault policy.

The changes include policies to further restrict student-faculty relationships and prohibit separation agreements with departing employees to hide sexual misconduct allegations against them. New employees also will be subjected to sexual assault background checks.

The NPR Illinois and ProPublica Illinois story found that some professors continued to teach after victims had come forward, and others were placed on paid administrative leave. In two cases, the university agreed not to share the details of their resignations with future employers.

The recommendations came from task force assembled by the university last fall to look at the system’s policies broadly.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the board's vote on Thursday.

Vivian McCall is a news intern at WBEZ. Follow her @MVivianMcCall.