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Despite Administrative Pushback and Theft, University of Tulsa’s ‘Collegian’ Produces Exceptional Reporting

FIRE often celebrates examples of impressive student journalism, especially by student newspapers that face threats from their university administration or other students because of their reporting. During this year’s Free Press Week celebration, we’d like to focus on the University of Tulsa’s (TU’s) student paper, the Collegian, which has produced outstanding journalism in its coverage of TU’s unjust suspension of student Trey Barnett.

Despite being threatened by TU with unnamed sanctions if the Collegian released “confidential information” (which, of course, TU administrators did not deign to identify or explain), Kyle Walker and Conor Fellin published a searing report last week on TU’s violation of its own policies in its suspension of Barnett.

Walker and Fellin criticize many decisions TU Senior Vice Provost Winona Tanaka made in regard to Barnett’s case, including her choice to interview only Barnett’s accuser’s witnesses; her refusal to accept Barnett’s evidence; and her punishment of Barnett for simply talking to his husband, an exculpatory witness, about the case. The entire piece is worth a close read, but the Collegian’s focus on TU’s denial of a hearing for Barnett is particularly important:

According to all of the documents available to the Collegian, Barnett was never provided with a hearing. As such, he was never confronted with the vast majority of the evidence recorded in the decision, never confronted with the specific arguments used by Tanaka and never provided with an opportunity to present witnesses on his behalf.

“There’s no solid evidence,” Barnett said. “And if there is, it was never given to me.”

The Student Code of Conduct states that all students shall have the opportunity “to hear all information against (them) and to question all witnesses against (them)” and “to present relevant information and witnesses on his/her behalf.”

The next day, TU President Steadman Upham emailed students to explain TU’s side of the story, arguing (poorly) that the Collegian misrepresented the facts because Barnett’s case was dealt with under TU’s Policy on Harassment rather than the Student Code of Conduct. Again, Walker had a response to Upham’s claim, and he defended the Collegian’s original reporting, stating:

The Collegian stands by its reporting in “TU administration suspended student without hearing.” The Policy on Harassment states multiple times that the Student Code of Conduct still applies in harassment cases.

Under the section entitled “Formal Complaint Process” the Policy on Harassment states that “investigations, and if appropriate, hearings shall be conducted in accordance with the appropriate governing document (See ‘Who is Covered’).”

Under the section “Who is Covered,” it states that the Policy on Harassment “shall be applied and interpreted in conjunction with the following existing documents: … ‘The Student Code of Conduct’ and ‘The University of Tulsa Statement on Rights, Freedoms and Responsibilities.’”

As reported in our original story, the Student Code of Conduct reads under Section D. 4 Procedures: “In all cases, a student accused of one or more violations of the student code has the right to a hearing.”

It further states in Section E. 5 Rights of the Accused that “no student shall be found partially/fully responsible for an offense without having been afforded each of the following rights, except with respect of those rights specifically and knowingly waived by the student in writing: … 2. The opportunity at the proceedings to hear all information against the student and to question all the witnesses against the accused student. 3. The opportunity at the proceeding to present relevant information and witnesses on his/her behalf.”

It’s reassuring to see that the Collegian’s student journalists are not tolerating TU’s attempts to so blatantly ignore its own policies and bully the paper into silence.

On Monday, Walker had one more addition to his portfolio of articles lambasting TU for violating its policies and suspending a student without a hearing. In it, Walker tells his fellow students that he hopes they enjoy reading TU’s student conduct policies, “because that’s all the good you’re going to get out of those policies if you do something to displease the powers that be.” Basically, Walker has had enough of TU’s excuses:

I’d be in a more charitable mood except that the school deliberately created an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear to discourage us from publishing our story about Trey Barnett. When that story hit the national press, the school rapidly backpedaled. A spokesperson from University Relations went so far as to tell the Student Press Law Center that she was not aware of any policies the Collegian could have violated.

We can’t get a straight answer out of these guys. They wouldn’t tell us at the time what policies we might have violated in investigating and publishing that story, and now they tell us that no such policies exist? What’ll it be, TU?

Walker’s strong words should inspire all other student journalists who face punishment or censorship for reporting stories or being critical of their university administrations.

Unfortunately, someone at TU definitely did not want to see the Collegian’s most recent issue. The Collegian reports that papers were stolen from nine TU buildings last Thursday. The Collegian may be distributed for free, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t an egregious act of theft. Student newspapers cost real money to produce, and businesses advertise in student newspapers with the expectation that their advertisements will reach students and not be thrown en masse into the trash.

The Collegian reported the newspaper theft to TU’s Campus Security, which has launched an investigation into the matter. FIRE hopes TU takes this theft seriously, regardless of the paper’s critical reporting on the university. It might as well, because TU really should know by now that no one can just make this story disappear.

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