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RCFP urges University of Illinois to exempt journalists from Title IX reporting requirements

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  1. Newsgathering
University of Illinois decision prevents NPR Illinois journalists from using confidential sources.
A photo of the University of Illinois Union Building. Photo by Raymond Cunningham.
A photo of the University of Illinois Union Building.

Reporters Committee attorneys and a coalition of 20 media organizations have asked the University of Illinois Board of Trustees to reconsider its refusal to grant an exemption from certain Title IX requirements to journalists employed by an NPR member station the school owns.

The requirements at issue mandate that school employees report allegations of sexual misconduct to the university — which prevents the station’s journalists from using confidential sources while covering such allegations on campus.

In August, NPR Illinois and ProPublica published a series of stories revealing how the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign protected the reputations of professors accused of sexual misconduct. The news organizations also encouraged victims to share their experiences anonymously. Within days, however, a university official informed the NPR member station that its reporters were considered “responsible employees” under Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination in education, meaning they were required to report incidents of sexual misconduct to school officials. (The University of Illinois System owns the license to NPR Illinois.)

NPR Illinois asked the university to exempt its reporters from the Title IX policy, but the university rejected the request.

In a letter sent to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees on Nov. 6, Reporters Committee attorneys argue that the school’s decision “undermines both freedom of the press and campus safety.”

The media coalition’s letter notes that Illinois has a reporter’s privilege statute, which is designed to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources. “The University should implement its Title IX program consistently with the clear public policy of the State of Illinois that journalists’ confidential sources must be protected,” the letter states.

Federal law grants universities some discretion when determining who to categorize as a responsible employee. And the University of Illinois has previously exempted the school’s confidential counselors.

Because NPR Illinois journalists have no authority to remedy harassment at the school — and because no student could reasonably believe that they would — Reporters Committee attorneys argue that guidance from the Department of Education allows the university to exempt the journalists from reporting sexual misconduct to school officials.

The media coalition’s letter urges the university to exempt the journalists, arguing that doing so would serve both the First Amendment and Title IX.

“Mandatory reporting of journalists’ confidential sources will chill coverage of the University’s handling of sexual misconduct,” the letter concludes. “Suppressing news coverage of the University’s shortcomings will allow systemic abuses like those already uncovered to continue in secret. By contrast, letting journalists utilize confidential sources in their work would do far more to hold the University accountable and promote safety on campus, furthering the purpose of Title IX.”

Read the media coalition’s letter.

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.

Photo by Raymond Cunningham

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