EDITORIAL: Uphold free press on campus and respect sexual assault survivors
Next Monday, the University community will gather for its annual Take Back The Night march across campus, a public event in which students share their personal experiences of sexual assault as part of a powerful national awareness campaign. The Justice will be covering this march as we did last year. We will be sending a reporter to walk beside the participants and take notes on the proceedings, and we will be anonymously quoting survivors on their speeches when discussing how they reacted to their experiences.
We are choosing to do this despite controversy and legal battles, because the issue at hand is extremely important to this community, and to not cover Take Back The Night in light of threats to the freedom of the press would be a disservice to both journalism and sexual assault awareness.
To appropriately report survivors’ stories, and to do so with sensitivity, requires that journalists take extra care. Sexual assault survivors have endured a serious trauma, and journalists have an obligation to minimize harm when covering the issue. The Society for Professional Journalists, the longest-standing organization in the United States representing journalists, advises reporters in their Code of Ethics to “use heightened sensitivity” when reporting on sex crimes. We model our reporting after this document and refer to it regularly on stories of this nature.
When reporting last year, we did not name or identify any speakers in our article on Take Back The Night. We did, however, include anonymous quotes from the speakers. The heart of Take Back The Night is hearing individuals talk about their own experiences of sexual assault; the campaign increases public awareness and encourages survivors to share their stories. Any reporting that does not acknowledge these speakers and their stories fails to adequately capture what is at the crux of the event, which should be the primary focus of any event coverage. Even then, our reporter was cautious about what quotes from the event she included — selecting non-identifying quotes from speakers about their emotional reactions regarding their experiences.
After publication, last year’s Take Back The Night coverage received overwhelming backlash from readers. Critics argued that speakers had been unaware that press would be attending Take Back The Night, and by quoting the survivors, even anonymously, we had made the space less safe and “taken the speakers’ stories away from them.” Our News editors received harassing emails. Students and administrators demanded we retract the article and apologize for printing it. We did not retract, alter or apologize for our coverage — one can still find the unaltered piece on our website.
In August 2015, three editors received a notice from a law office that its legal team had been hired to investigate the case for a potential lawsuit.
The notice argued that even though Massachusetts state law permits audio recording of public events, the safe-space mentality of Take Back The Night made it a private affair, which is illegal to record without permission. The argument that this was a private affair is invalid, due to the public invitation the University community received and the publicity associated with all Take Back The Night events. The case was never pursued beyond the initial notice.
The right to record public events is a well-guarded and cherished right not only for journalists but for activists as well. It is one of the only reasons public awareness campaigns like Take Back The Night function effectively: they inspire public discourse on underrepresented topics — a discourse that is often carried out in the media.
Survivors of sexual assault must be treated with deep respect by reporters, but public speakers must recognize as well that what they say is for a wide audience. They cannot predict who will attend. What is said for a large public audience will be discussed and quoted by attendees, including — but not limited to — members of the press.
As we approached this year’s Take Back The Night, the issues surrounding last year’s article resurfaced. Last month, the same editors who received the legal notice were summoned under a Community Standards Report by the University, which sought to prosecute them for recording audio of the event. The CSR cited a section in Rights and Responsibilities forbidding recording without all parties’ consent. This rule was not intended to apply to journalists. Were this rule to have been interpreted as narrowly as the case argued, almost any reporting by the Justice, the Brandeis Hoot or WBRS would become impossible. The campus newspapers and other media would turn into public relations venues instead of reporting outlets.
The Justice offers its heartfelt thanks to the University’s Journalism department, which spoke on our behalf to administrative officials and sought support from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an advocacy group for free speech on college campuses. FIRE reached out to the University, as well.
Over the last year, the Justice has consulted two faculty members from the University’s Journalism Program and four other professional journalists. Unanimously, professional and even Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists have told the Justice that our reporting was both appropriate and ethical.
It’s troubling enough that students threatened freedom of the press, but the fact that administrators watched and abetted this challenge to the Brandeis mission and commitment to free speech for as long as they did is unconscionable.
The University could have dismissed the case at any point but instead continued to pursue the case until the issue gained traction with FIRE. Last night, the University informed the three editors that they would not be penalized over the case. This was only after the University received letters from the Journalism department and FIRE and administrators sat with Journalism faculty members in several meetings over the last month. Additionally, the Justice has been informed that the University’s recording policies will be revisited and potentially revised, as they allow for an interpretation that threatens free press on campus.
Activism and journalism can and should work hand in hand on issues like sexual assault on campus, not trying to control or bend one another but respecting each other’s conventions and requirements. The Justice reported last year’s Take Back The Night accurately, thoroughly and sensitively, as we endeavour to cover all events.
A free press requires citizens to abide by specific principles. A person can be quoted for what they say in a public setting. A newspaper that discusses polarizing views is not biased, hateful or cruel. And most important of all, reporters are not writing with a vendetta. Our obligation is to cover stories accurately, thoroughly and sensitively. Journalists have a responsibility to inform — not to appease.
This year at Take Back The Night, our reporter will wear a press badge identifying themselves and will both take notes on paper and prominently display their recording device, per standard Justice policy of event coverage.
Any survivors or participants who speak may be quoted and will be granted anonymity. The reporter will be the only one to hear the audio of the event, and the audio will be deleted following publication of the article, also per standard Justice policy. The quotations will only use non-identifying lines from speeches. The three editors who were involved in the CSR will not write, edit or read the article before publication.
This board hopes that this important event will be widely attended by the University community. In addition, this board hopes that the University community remains aware that participants of any public event speak to the community at large, especially when speaking in a public setting.