CHICAGO — The University of Illinois issued a statement Thursday addressing complaints that it is violating free-press protections by requiring a public radio employee to disclose any sexual harassment complaints from confidential sources.
The statement says it is “committed to working on a solution” that would protect First Amendment rights as well as the safety of students on campus, though it did not say what that would be.
The UI has taken heat for maintaining that the federal Title IX law requires public radio employees at the Springfield campus to report information on sexual harassment gathered through a confidential online questionnaire, including the source's name. The UI holds the NPR license for the station.
In public comments Thursday, the ACLU of Illinois, Better Government Association and Illinois NPR on Thursday strongly urged the board to exempt the journalists from a UI policy requiring all “responsible employees” under Title IX to report claims of sexual harassment within 48 hours. Counselors and pastors are already exempt from the mandatory reporting requirement.
Speakers on Thursday said the UI's stance amounts to a "gag order" on journalists and hinders victims from coming forward. They also said courts have consistently upheld reporters’ First Amendment right to protect confidential sources.
"The university should not interfere with reporters' ability to do their jobs independently, thoroughly and ethically," the ACLU's Colleen Connell said.
Title IX, which was passed in 1972, prohibits gender discrimination and harassment in education.
The issue arose after NPR Illinois and ProPublica reported in August on several sexual-misconduct cases where UI 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 victims of sexual harassment at all Illinois universities to share their experiences. They offered to protect confidentiality.
ProPublica, which is not affiliated with the university, later set up a separate reporting mechanism for confidential sources to get around the UI’s requirement.
Here is the UI’s statement in full:
Freedom of the press is literally a cornerstone of our nation, a principle so fundamental that it is enshrined in the First Amendment. Across the University of Illinois System, we deeply value the watchdog function that a free press provides, and are proud of our contributions through best-in-class academic programs that have long helped train the journalists of tomorrow.
Recently, we received a well-intentioned request from WUIS to exempt its staff from Title IX-mandated reporting requirements involving sexual misconduct. The request is in potential conflict with another core principle we value – the safety of our campuses, our students, and our faculty and staff.
Those Title IX reporting requirements are a key to our efforts. A primary goal is to make sure the institution knows about any student who may have been victimized so that we can reach out to provide support through counseling, accommodations and other resources.
The requirements also serve a watchdog function of their own, ensuring that everyone on our campuses looks out for each other by reporting any instance of harassment, misconduct or abuse. The reporting policy, approved by the Board of Trustees in 2016, purposely enlists virtually every employee to help us provide the culture of safety that fosters learning, discovery and success. The only personnel exempted are confidential advisors who complete extensive training to provide the special skills needed to support student survivors of sexual violence. It is a rigorous process, requiring 40 hours of initial training and six hours of continuing education annually to help them counsel and guide students following a disclosure.
We realize that having journalists who are also university employees creates a unique situation, and we are committed to working on a solution to support two very important interests. We have no intention of stifling the news gathering process. The Title IX process is carefully designed to ensure the interests of all participants are protected, which includes confidentiality to the greatest extent possible. We understand that WUIS has already implemented measures to direct students and other complainants to alternative media outlets that have no Title IX reporting obligations.
We greatly value and appreciate the essential role of the media and we look forward to working with our WUIS employees on a path forward. In all of this, the safety of our campuses is paramount. That bedrock commitment to the well-being of our students and employees is reflected in the work of a system-wide task force that spent the last year examining every aspect of our efforts to prevent sexual misconduct, and developing a comprehensive set of recommendations that trustees will vote on at today’s meeting.
Editor's note: Earlier versions of this story inadvertently omitted the first paragraph of the university's statement.