UW Student Paper Calls For Protection After Requests to Reveal Sources
The University of Wyoming student paper, the Branding Iron, is pushing back after the university requested BI staff writers to reveal their sources for a story.
In an editorial published on Dec. 1, the BI details the experiences of two writers who said they felt pressured to give up their sources for a story or face consequences. The editorial calls for Shield Laws, which protect journalists from the government requiring them to give up their sources or other information, to be implemented in Wyoming.
Taylor Hannon, BI editor-in-chief, said the story in question was titled “Number of sexual assault reports increases.” The story was published in early November and says the number of sexual assault reports on campus is rising and also includes allegations that a UW Resident Assistant committed sexual assault in a residence hall. Hannon said the UW Police Department, one detective in particular, pressured two student writers to give up the information regarding the identity of sources used in writing the article.
Hannon said the detective contacted one writer via email and asked them to come to the UWPD office.
“The way it sounded like to me when the writer was talking to me about it was that she felt very uncomfortable the whole time, the detective was asking her questions almost like an interrogation,” Hannon said. “It started out with questions like ‘did you write this article?’”
Hannon said the writer, who is a freshman at UW, felt uncomfortable alone in the room with the police officer.
The other writer, Hannon said, was called repeatedly by the UWPD detective on her personal cell phone. The student is an international student who Hannon said felt pressured to pick up the phone and answer the questions. Hannon said that at the behest of the detective, the writer asked her source if she could give the detective her contact information and the source declined. Hannon said the writer told the detective the source said no.
“She [the writer] told that to the officer, like, ‘the girl said no, I can’t give you the information,’ this kind of thing. And the officer was like ‘well, I need it,’ and kind of didn’t give her this choice,” Hannon said.
Hannon said the writers didn’t feel like they were helping voluntarily, but rather that they had to give the information or consequences would follow. Hannon said the UWPD detective never told the writers that consequences might result if they didn’t cooperate, but it was the impression that the students had.
Hannon said Interim Dean of Students Nycole Courtney emailed the Student Media advisor and directed the advisor to tell the BI staff that they must give up their sources and that the students couldn’t keep their sources in the case of a sexual assault. Hannon said mandating BI student writers to give up their sources infringes on their First Amendment rights.
“By telling us we can and can’t do, I feel like she’s basically creating this line that we have to do this or consequences are going to happen,” Hannon said. “So her telling my advisor that ‘you need to tell your staff that they can’t keep your sources in terms of a sexual assault’ is basically putting words into my advisor’s mouth and then also implicating how we need to act as journalists.”
Hannon said UW's policy that employees have a mandatory duty to report sexual assault includes BI staff. She says she thinks this plays a factor in the issue, but said BI staff are also journalists and should have some protections. She said the recent experiences of the BI staff are why she is lobbying for Shield Laws in Wyoming to protect journalists and their sources.
UW Police Chief Mike Samp said the UWPD began investigating the allegations that an RA committed sexual assault after the initial BI story was published in November.
“We directed staff to investigate and the student paper did provide minimal information,” Samp said.
Samp said BI reporters are not obligated to give their sources to UWPD; however, Samp said the source did not speak to the student paper on condition of anonymity. Samp said the information was not coerced from the students in any manner and the interaction between the BI staff writer and the UWPD detective was reviewed after the editorial was published.
Samp said the interaction was professional and there were no threats, demands, coercing and no indication that any consequences would arise if the information wasn’t given. Samp said there could be no consequences for the students from the UWPD.
“There would be no consequences, not through the university PD, no. First Amendment rules apply here just like it would with any other publication,” Samp said.
Samp said, however, that the UWPD has serious public safety concerns in this case.
“If we have allegations that we have a potential rapist in the residence halls, safety has to be the first priority,” Samp said.
Samp said the sexual assault allegations are being investigated and the case is ongoing.