Open Letter: The University Of Illinois Must Protect First Amendment Rights

Oct 10, 2019

Dear President Timothy Killeen and Chancellor Susan Koch:

In August, NPR Illinois in partnership with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network published articles about the University of Illinois’ handling of sexual misconduct cases. Our reporting documented that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has helped several professors retain seemingly unblemished records even though they were found to have violated school policies, including its sexual misconduct policies. Following these stories, NPR Illinois and ProPublica published a questionnaire for other victims of sexual harassment at Illinois colleges and universities to help our reporting by sharing their experiences. In the requests published on our website, we extended offers of confidentiality, as is common practice for journalists dealing with people who may be traumatized.

Within days, the University of Illinois Springfield, where NPR Illinois is based, raised an objection to this practice. Specifically, the Title IX coordinator told station leadership (in person and in writing) that virtually all university employees – referred to in policy as “responsible employees” – including journalists, are required to report alleged sexual misconduct that we are told about to the Title IX office. The ethics officer later reached out with a similar message to the journalists and leadership at NPR Illinois.

NPR Illinois leadership then requested an exemption to the Title IX policy, for journalists employed by the university engaged in newsgathering activities.

On Tuesday, that request was denied. In an email to NPR Illinois leadership, the ethics officer explained, in part: “maintaining the need for such employees to report [to the university] would appropriately support the interests of campus safety.” Although the officer offered assurance that the university values “journalistic integrity, freedom of the press, and the legal protections that exist to advance those interests,” the email concludes: “[Journalists] remain free to pursue information about the topic at issue but should avoid promising confidentiality to anyone about allegations of sexual misconduct.”

Keeping source information confidential is a common practice for investigative journalists. Asking journalists to reveal sources or prohibiting them from receiving confidential information is antithetical to freedom of the press and editorial independence.

Therefore, we are calling on you, as leaders of the university, to recognize the First Amendment protections of journalists and the editorial independence of our news organization by reconsidering our request for an exemption.

The University of Illinois Board of Trustees holds the license for NPR Illinois/WUIS. We also follow the Public Media Code of Integrity, which states: “The freedom of public media professionals to make editorial decisions without undue influence is essential. It is rooted in America’s commitment to free speech and a free press.”

Those editorial decisions include promising confidentiality to people who take great personal risks to share their stories with us.

We have adopted extra measures, described in an editor’s note from ProPublica, to ensure we can continue reporting on this important topic for now, while protecting those who want to confidentially share their stories with our news organization.

However, routing tips through our partner organization does not address the fact that this policy impedes our ability to report on misconduct at our license holder – the University of Illinois.

We understand and appreciate that the goal of the Title IX policy is to address claims of misconduct and discrimination, to fairly investigate them and recommend ways to resolve complaints. Our goal as a journalism organization is not to interfere with the Title IX process, but to ethically and responsibly report on it – to tell the stories of the people who have experienced misconduct and the process by which the university handles these claims.

We know that victims are often fearful or hesitant to report claims. According to a June 2016 report from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, on average between 87% and 94% of individuals who experience sexual harassment at work never make a formal complaint. Another study referenced in the EEOC report found that 75% of victims who do report face some form of retaliation as a result.

To best continue this work, we need to allow anyone who is critical or wary of the Title IX reporting system to talk with us openly and freely.

We hope our reporting spotlights the problems in order to make potential solutions more clear to the university and the general public. For now, the enforcement of the Title IX policy prevents us from doing this important work, and does a disservice to victims and our broader audience.

Currently, the University of Illinois Springfield’s Title IX policy exempts Counseling Center employees from being mandated reporters. We request that newsgathering activities carried out by professional journalists employed by the University of Illinois be likewise exempted from mandated reporting. This policy modification was suggested to us by attorney Don Craven, who represents the Illinois News Broadcasters Association in cases pertaining to freedom of the press.

Hundreds of public radio stations are licensed through universities and colleges across the United States. Some schools have similar Title IX policies that could make journalists “responsible employees.” The University of Illinois has the opportunity to be a leader in standing up for the First Amendment rights of university-affiliated news organizations, while balancing its goal of building a campus free of sexual harassment, misconduct and discrimination.

Sincerely,

NPR Illinois Leadership and News Staff

Randy Eccles, General Manager

Sean Crawford, News Director

Rachel Otwell, Local Reporting Network Reporter

Mary Hansen, Local Reporting Network Editor

Daisy Contreras, Reporter

Sam Dunklau, Reporter

Maureen Foertsch McKinney, Reporter

Brian Mackey, Statehouse Reporter

Dusty Rhodes, Education Reporter

Charles N. Wheeler, III, Contributor, Retired Director of the University of Illinois Springfield’s Public Affairs Reporting Program

Sent to: The University of Illinois Board of Trustees