The University of Wyoming is revising its mandatory reporting policy after a student editorial criticized campus police for requesting the names of anonymous sources.
Taylor Hannon, editor of UW’s student newspaper the Branding Iron, said the request had a chilling effect on her staff, dissuading other reporters from taking on challenging stories.
“A lot of them are just shying away from the opportunity to grow as journalists,” Hannon said.
“The main thing about being a student newspaper is to encourage your writers to want to take stories, to want to learn and push themselves. So, seeing it happening within my staff is very uncomfortable and concerning … As journalists, we should be allowed to protect our sources.”
A Nov. 3 Branding Iron story — “Number of sexual assault reports increases” — included an unsourced allegation that a resident assistant sexually assaulted more than one female during the spring and fall 2017 semesters.
The UW Police Department contacted the story’s freshman author, Destiny Irwin, seeking the source of the allegation. UWPD Chief Mike Samp said it was important to determine if a crime had occurred, if there was a victim in need of help and if there was a rapist who should be punished.
“Because of the public safety issues involved, we felt it was very important to follow up with the reporters involved in that article,” he said. “In this particular case, public safety had to be the priority for our decision-making. We would not have been doing our due diligence if we didn’t follow up with the allegation.”
Hannon said the experience left the reporter shaken.
“It was never said that it was an interrogation, but that is the way that the writer perceived it,” she said. “She felt super uncomfortable. She felt like she had to answer every single question.”
The interview was not an interrogation, Samp said.
“Nobody was in custody at anytime,” he said. “Everybody was free to leave. There was no coercion or pressure. There certainly were no consequences if that person did not divulge any information. The officer that was involved was completely respectful and courteous.”
Seeking the source of the allegation, Interim Dean of Students Nycole Courtney emailed Branding Iron adviser Cary Berry-Smith, saying the student journalists were required to reveal their source because of their status as UW employees.
With some exceptions — mainly counselors and medical professionals — employees of UW are required, per UW policy, to report allegations, rumors or confessions of sexual misconduct both on and off campus, said Sean Blackburn, vice president for student affairs.
“The dean of students was following our policy in regard to a public safety issue involving a story a reporter was doing,” he said. “We are currently looking at revising our policy to address journalistic privilege.”
This interpretation of the policy is not shared by Cheyenne-based lawyer Bruce Moats, who was retained by Berry-Smith in response to the email.
Moats wrote a letter to UW’s Office of General Counsel citing the university’s mandatory reporting policy and arguing it does not apply to students, nor even all employees.
“Further, the reporters and editors at the Branding Iron have a qualified First Amendment privilege not to provide unpublished material to the authorities through subpoenas or other mandatory disclosure,” the letter reads.
The letter does not ask for an apology, but does ask the UW administration to recognize its “error.”
“We’re looking forwards,” Moats said. “We want this kind of situation that occurred here not to happen again (and) basically that student journalists be treated as journalists, which they are … We want them to recognize that we shouldn’t be treating students as mandatory reporters and interrogating them.”
Blackburn said Branding Iron reporters are currently classified as mandatory reporters, but that his office will work with the Student Media Board to revise that classification.
“I want to be clear that we don’t want to impinge on journalistic privilege,” Blackburn said. “We recognize it, but we also recognize that journalistic privilege is not absolute — particularly when it comes to public safety — so we’re looking into how to revise this policy … In the meantime, if something comes up, we’ll work to handle that on a case by case basis.”
Hannon said both student and professional journalists would benefit from shield laws, which are state laws enacted to protect a reporter’s privilege. Wyoming is the only state without either shield laws or a court-recognized privilege, according to the Student Press Law Center.
“There are no protections for journalists in the state of Wyoming,” Hannon said. “And what has happened to us is only a little part of why we need rights. Having shield laws could help a lot of journalists and protect us even more.”
UWPD is still investigating the case at the heart of the original Branding Iron story, Samp said.
“(The reporters) did provide enough information that we were able to determine who that source was,” he said. “The situation is still under investigation and we will certainly keep the safety of our campus as the primary focus and No. 1 priority.”