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The University of Illinois is taking heat from watchdog groups for requiring public radio employees at the Springfield campus to disclose information on sexual harassment gathered through a confidential online questionnaire.

The Better Government Association and the Illinois Press Association sent a letter to the UI Board of Trustees on Friday, asking the board to take action to protect the First Amendment rights of journalists at WUIS, also known as NPR Illinois.

They asked trustees to exempt the journalists from a UI policy requiring all “responsible employees” under the federal Title IX law to report claims of sexual harassment within 48 hours. Counselors and pastors are already exempt from the mandatory reporting requirement, according to UI officials.

Title IX, which was passed in 1972, prohibits gender discrimination and harassment in education.

The UI maintains that as university employees, radio station reporters are required to disclose the information, including the name of the complainant. The UI holds the NPR license for the station.

The issue arose after NPR Illinois and ProPublica reported in August on several sexual-misconduct cases where professors found to have violated campus policies were allowed to quietly leave for new jobs or continue being paid during or after investigations.

After the stories were published, NPR Illinois and ProPublica published a questionnaire asking other victims of sexual harassment at Illinois colleges and universities to share their experiences. They offered to protect the sources’ confidentiality.

According to an Oct. 10 open letter to the university from Illinois NPR, the Title IX coordinator at the UI Springfield objected, telling station management that virtually all UI employees are required to report alleged sexual misconduct under UI policy. The UI’s ethics officer, Donna McNeeley, later sent a similar message to the journalists and station leadership, the letter said. In their letter, Better Government Association President David Greising and Illinois Press Association President Sam Fisher said requiring journalists to reveal anonymous sources violates their First Amendment right to gather and disseminate the news. It also discourages victims from coming forward, which is counter to the intent of Title IX, they said.

They noted that the story became public because victims were willing to talk anonymously with reporters, and it “exposed the university’s failure to take appropriate steps when victims came forward through appropriate channels.

“By seeking to intercept future complaints to NPR, the university invites further skepticism of its priorities,” the letter said.

UI President Tim Killeen said Tuesday the intent is not to “squelch stories.” He noted that ProPublica, which is not affiliated with the university, has set up a separate reporting mechanism for confidential sources to get around the requirement.

“There are options to go elsewhere,” Killeen said.

Killeen said the board “is receiving input” on the matter, but he declined to characterize trustees’ views or say whether the university might reverse its decision.

“We put our students above everything else,” Killeen said. “If there’s a staff member, our position currently is that they would have to, like everybody else who is a staff member,” report sexual harassment, he said.

“We can’t address an issue that we don’t know about with our students,” he said. “They’re our first responsibility.”

In a statement earlier this month, UI spokesman Tom Hardy said the university had received outside counsel and reviewed the legal and policy implications of the decision and determined that it “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,” he said.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).