NPR Illinois Can't Report Freely on U of I Sexual Misconduct. These Groups Want That To Change.

Nov 8, 2019

The ACLU of Illinois, press freedom groups and victims’ rights advocates urged the university to alter a policy that requires reporters to tell campus officials about sources’ sexual harassment complaints.

This article was produced in partnership with the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

In August, NPR Illinois and ProPublica published an investigation into how the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign protected the reputations of faculty accused of sexual misconduct.

Afterward, university officials told NPR Illinois that the station could not promise confidentiality to students, employees, faculty or others who contacted the newsroom to share experiences of sexual misconduct at the University of Illinois.

The university, which owns the station, said NPR Illinois journalists are considered “responsible employees.” What that means is that like most other campus workers, they are required to pass on misconduct allegations to the institution for further investigation.

NPR Illinois saw the university’s directive as a threat to its ability to freely report on sexual misconduct. It wrote an open letter last month asking the university to exercise its discretion and remove journalists from the mandate to report misconduct allegations.

Since then, press freedom organizations; experts in Title IX, the federal anti-discrimination law; and advocates for those who’ve experienced sexual violence have added their voices to the station’s call for change.

In a statement Thursday, the ACLU of Illinois called on university officials to “value” their journalists' “search for truth, not obstruct it.”

“This rule does not promote campus safety, prevent harassment, or otherwise advance the purpose of Title IX,” the civil liberties group wrote. “Instead, it deprives survivors of sexual misconduct of the opportunity to speak to a reporter in confidence with the hope of helping others with similar experiences or helping to change a dysfunctional system.”

The Better Government Association , Illinois News Broadcasters Association , and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have sent letters to the university’s board of trustees. The University of Illinois Springfield Campus Senate, with the support of the Student Government Association, approved a resolution Friday supporting NPR Illinois’ request for an exemption.

University of Illinois officials maintain that the policy does not violate any legal protections or press freedoms.

“Our primary goal is to enhance campus safety, and making sure that all employees report any instance of sexual misconduct is part of how we protect students and their welfare,” Thomas Hardy, a spokesman for the university system, wrote in an emailed statement.

ProPublica has a tip line and online questionnaire that allows people who have experienced sexual misconduct at Illinois colleges and universities to contact reporters. To ensure the respondents’ confidentiality, ProPublica is collecting relevant tips and only passing along the ones that would not violate the university’s rule. For instance, NPR Illinois employees are not required to report sexual harassment allegations at non-University of Illinois campuses.

NPR Illinois sees this as an imperfect fix that has hampered its journalists’ ability to robustly report on a topic of vital public interest.

In addition to threatening press freedom, NPR Illinois supporters said, the university’s stance takes away an option for survivors to talk freely and openly with a journalist based on campus. Sage Carson, a manager with Know Your IX, an advocacy group that works to end sexual and dating violence at schools, called the application of the university’s directive to journalists “highly inappropriate.”

“Student survivors seeking out media are not doing so to gain corrective measures from the journalist,” she told NPR Illinois. She explained that this is why talking to a journalist, even one based on campus, is different than a student seeking out a faculty member, coach or other university employee with the ability to address the problem.

NPR Illinois has requested to discuss its concerns with the university’s Board of Trustees on Nov. 14.

In the meantime, the station will continue to explore ways to reach a compromise with the university that does not limit its ability to function as any other member of the news media.

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Mary Hansen and Rachel Otwell are reporters at NPR Illinois.

NPR Illinois was part of the Illinois Newsroom collaborative, which secured the initial grant for this project.

NPR Illinois and Illinois Public Media are part of the University of Illinois System. The university has no editorial control or oversight of news content produced by either. Reporters at NPR Illinois, however, are considered “responsible employees” under the university’s policies and are required to report allegations of abuse to the university. As a result, news tips should be sent to ProPublica staff.

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