Illinois NPR objects to university's harassment source rules

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — A National Public Radio station licensed by the University of Illinois is objecting to a requirement that its reporters tell school officials about confidential complaints of university-related sexual harassment they receive.

NPR Illinois published a letter late Thursday arguing that the First Amendment exempts its reporters, who are university employees, from a requirement to report sexual misconduct.

"Asking journalists to reveal sources or prohibiting them from receiving confidential information is antithetical to freedom of the press and editorial independence," read the letter, which seeks an exemption from the university reporting policy and was signed by the entire WUIS-FM news staff.

The station, based at the university's Springfield campus, joined nonprofit news organization ProPublica in an August report that found the university took steps to protect employees accused of sexual harassment, such as by keeping them on staff, allowing them to resign or putting them on paid leave.

It concluded with an invitation for others to report their experiences. The letter says the university told the station university policy requires relaying those reports to comply with federal law.

University spokesman Thomas Hardy said the school has determined that requiring that media employees follow the reporting policy "would not violate any constitutional or other legal protections."

"Our primary goal is to enhance campus safety and making sure that all employees report any instance of sexual misconduct is part of how we protect students and their welfare," Hardy said.

NPR Illinois General Manager Randy Eccles said the university has not tried to stop the reporting but that it is "trying to enforce an important university policy which at the same time conflicts with journalists and the integrity of the process we need to follow."

ProPublica's Local Reporting Network, which teams with reporters for yearlong investigative projects, chose NPR Illinois reporter Rachel Otwell's proposal on sexual harassment in Illinois universities. After the August report and the university's dictum that Otwell would have to turn over confidential tips, ProPublica set up a firewall and is the lone recipient of "several dozen responses," according to Charles Ornstein, a ProPublica deputy managing editor overseeing the network.

Don Craven, a lawyer for the Illinois News Broadcasters' Association, said he pointed out to the university that its counseling center employees are exempt from the reporting requirement.

"The counseling office serves a legitimate public purpose," Craven said. "We want people to be as comfortable as possible talking to them and for many of the same reasons, we want people to be as comfortable as possible talking to reporters in confidence."

Otwell, an NPR Illinois reporter since 2012, said she's "pursuing other angles" but is stymied from following up on tips her story produced.

"This has broader implications than just the work we're doing," Otwell said. "It could affect student reporters and public radio journalists based at other universities."

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Online

NPR Illinois letter: https://bit.ly/2q3hYsc

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Follow Political Writer John O'Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor .

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