JMU Upholds Trespassing Charge Against Student Reporter; Investigative Journalism Results in Year of Probation

November 11, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, FIRE reported on an incident at James Madison University in which two reporters for the JMU newspaper The Breeze received disciplinary charges from the university after entering a residence hall to interview JMU students about a recent “peeping Tom” incident. Unfortunately, as the Breeze and the Student Press Law Center report, JMU has upheld a charge of trespassing against Katie Hibson, one of the two reporters charged, and has placed her on probation for one year.

Both Hibson and Breeze Editor-in-Chief Tim Chapman had been charged by JMU with trespassing, disorderly conduct, and failing to follow the order of a university officer. The incident, as reported by the Breeze on October 23, went as follows:

On Sunday, Hibson, a sophomore media arts and design major, was investigating the Oct. 14 trespassing incident in Hillside Hall, which The Breeze learned about when JMU sent a “Timely Notice” e-mail Sunday morning. Hibson said she was invited into the residence hall Sunday afternoon when she identified herself as a reporter. She said she was invited into the building by resident Ariel Spagnolo, who Hibson said was no more than 15 feet away as she interviewed people. After identifying herself to Resident Adviser Maria Lane, Hibson said she was asked to leave, which she promptly did.

Hibson returned to Hillside later in the afternoon with Chapman, a senior media arts and design major, while accompanied by a resident who also works on The Breeze staff. After trying to interview residents, Hibson said Hall Director Sarah Woody and Lane asked them to leave the building, and Woody then called police.

All three of the charges against Chapman were dropped, as were two of the three charges against Hibson. JMU’s Judicial Affairs office, however, found Hibson responsible on the trespassing charge, and has placed her on probation until Fall 2010.

Hibson will not appeal despite Chapman’s urging and her disagreement with the decision, the Breeze reported on November 9, because “the judicial process has had a negative effect on her schoolwork.” JMU is no doubt glad it doesn’t have to defend the wrongful charge to her. It is in for a disappointment, however, if it thinks it is done explaining to the rest of the community why it felt her attempt to follow her editor’s assignment merited a year of probation.

Schools:  James Madison University