Student Reporters at James Madison University Threatened with Disciplinary Action for Attempting to Report On-Campus Incident

October 28, 2009

For attempting to report on a recent trespassing incident in a James Madison University residence hall, two reporters for the JMU newspaper The Breeze have themselves been charged with trespassing.

As The Breeze reported on October 23:

On Sunday, [Breeze contributor Katie] 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 [editor-in-chief Tim] 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 [which they apparently did], and Woody then called police.

Chapman and Hibson were notified of the chargeswhich included trespassing, disorderly conduct, and failure to follow the order of a university officialvia e-mail on October 22. Yesterday, the Student Press Law Center reported that JMU had informed the students that it intended to pursue the charges; the first hearing is set for November 5.

That student reporters investigating a matter of public concern (someone had allegedly broken into the dorm to spy on female students in showers) would encounter such treatment is baffling and unsettling, and represents a serious breach of the First Amendment. At least one student newspaper, recognizing JMU’s actions as such, has expressed its solidarity with The Breeze.

For now, the mood at The Breeze seems more one of incredulity than intimidation. Hibson and Chapman are amazed that JMU is following through with the charges, and confident that it won’t be successful. So is the SPLC where attorney Adam Goldstein comments:

“It’s an action so contradictory to the ordinary meaning of the First Amendment that it’s astonishing they haven’t backed down from it yet … A mistake this obvious shouldn’t take this long to get corrected.”

JMU may well be hearing from FIRE soon.

Schools:  James Madison University