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Victory: Student Journalists Cleared of Charges for Reporting on Sexual Assault Awareness Event

March 29, 2016

BOSTON, March 29, 2016—Last night, Brandeis University told three student journalists from The Justice, a student newspaper, that it would not punish them for reporting on a 2015 “Take Back The Night” (TBTN) campus march. The exonerations follow months of controversy marked by formal disciplinary charges from the university, a threat of legal action from outside attorneys, and demands from students and administrators that The Justice’s coverage of the event be removed from the paper’s website.

The university also said the policy under which the students were charged would be reviewed.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote to Brandeis last week, urging administrators to respect freedom of the press and not punish the three student journalists.

“If student reporters can be punished for accurately and sensitively reporting on a public event held on campus, freedom of the press does not exist,” said FIRE Senior Program Officer Ari Cohn. “I’m relieved that Brandeis has decided to drop its investigation—an investigation that never should have been opened in the first place.”

On February 29, 2016, three editors of The Justice—Abby Patkin, Max Moran, and Avi Gold—were informed that a student had filed a complaint against them with the university over an article they published the previous year about the 2015 TBTN march. The complaint alleged Patkin recorded stories shared by students at the march and published an article containing anonymous quotes from students without first obtaining their consent. The complaint against the students alleged a violation of Brandeis’ “Electronic Device and Privacy” policy, which prohibits invasions of privacy via surreptitious audio or visual recordings.

On March 23, FIRE wrote to Brandeis Interim President Lisa Lynch to explain that openly recording a public event, and then accurately and anonymously quoting students who spoke publicly at that event, does not constitute an invasion of privacy. FIRE also noted that the recording did not violate the Massachusetts law that the Brandeis policy is intended to mirror. Yesterday evening, Brandeis informed the students that it was dropping the investigation and would review the Electronic Device and Privacy policy.

In an editorial published today, The Justice’s editorial board describes its year-long ordeal, which included demands from students and administrators to pull their article and issue an apology, as well as having disciplinary charges brought against the editors. The editorial describes how the paper “received a notice from a law office that its legal team had been hired to investigate the case for a potential lawsuit.”

The paper said they plan to cover this year’s TBTN event, writing in today’s editorial that failure to cover it “would be a disservice to both journalism and sexual assault awareness.”

“I’m pleased that Brandeis University decided to do the right thing and uphold its promises of freedom of expression and a free student press,” said Cohn. “Justice Louis D. Brandeis’ own writing, which served as the foundation for modern privacy law, recognized that the right to privacy must not be wielded to suppress discussion of matters of public concern. We look forward to the university’s policy being amended accordingly.”

FIRE is a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campus across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org

Schools: Brandeis University Cases: Brandeis University: Student Journalists Cleared of Charges for Reporting on Sexual Assault Awareness Event