The University of Wyoming and its police department pressured student journalists to name their source for a story alleging sexual assaults by an unnamed resident assistant, prompting a lawyer to get involved and the school to consider changing its reporting policies.
On Nov. 3, the UW student paper, the Branding Iron, published a report headlined “Number of sexual assault reports increases.” The article begins with an allegation that an unnamed resident assistant had been accused of sexually assaulting “girls” in a dorm during the spring and fall 2017 semesters.
The report does not provide sources for that claim, nor does it offer details about who the resident assistant is or in what dorm the assaults allegedly took place.
Chad Baldwin, a spokesman for the university, said Tuesday that the University of Wyoming Police Department had concluded that the claim was false.
“It’s a baseless report,” he said.
Taylor Hannon, the editor in chief of the Branding Iron and a UW student, said the newspaper was “working on completing the story to further investigate.”
She said she and the other editors felt the story was appropriately backed up and “wouldn’t have run it” otherwise.
In any case, authorities did not know that the story was apparently rumor at the time it was posted. After its publication, a University of Wyoming Police Department detective contacted its author, according to a letter sent to the university by Bruce Moats, an attorney retained by the newspaper’s advisor. Moats also represents the Star-Tribune on some legal matters.
The detective spoke with the story’s author, a freshman, in what Hannon described as a setting that was like an interrogation. The author felt very pressured to give the detective information, Hannon said.
The journalist told the detective that she heard the story from another staff member, who told the detective that she’d “overheard the rumor” from another student in a class, according to Moats’ letter.
“The reporter was told to go find that student and get her name and number,” Moats wrote in his letter to Tara Evans, the general counsel for UW. “The reporter did so, but the student refused. The reporter informed police of the refusal and was told to try again or to give the source the office’s number.”
In a Dec. 1 editorial calling for more protection for journalists, the Branding Iron said the detective “continued to pressure another staff writer, calling her personal cell several times demanding information regarding a source that (the detective) should have obtained herself as a detective.”
The editorial calls for a statewide shield law. Generally, such laws protect journalists from having to give up sources in court or to authorities.
In addition to the law enforcement contact, Nycole Courtney — the interim dean of students — emailed the newspaper’s advisor, Cary Berry-Smith, to tell her that the students “are to give up (their) sources,” according to the editorial.
Hannon said the reporters have a right to protect their sources. But she added that she was not sure if any source had been granted anonymity or confidentiality in the reporting of the Nov. 3 report.
The university and police were apparently pressuring the paper not only out of a desire to investigate the alleged assault but also because they believed the Branding Iron staff were “mandatory reporters,” meaning that they were required to report campus sexual assault to the appropriate authorities.
In his letter, Moats wrote that UW’s interpretation was incorrect: Quoting the university policy, he said that “every administrative officer, dean, director, department head, supervisor, and all instructional personnel” qualified as mandatory reporters. Students and unlisted employees appear to be excluded.
Baldwin said he would defer to Moats’ interpretation. The university’s 2015-2016 student code of conduct identifies mandatory reporters as “university officials,” then refers to the list included in Moats’ letter.
The university was working to create an exception within its policy for journalists, Baldwin added.
“Yes, there is a qualified privilege for reporters that we need to honor,” he said. “But also that — understand when it comes to the health and safety of our campus, we’re going to be pretty aggressive.”
Hannon said she was unaware of the proposed changes to the policy until she read it in media reports on Tuesday.
UWPD Chief Mike Samp told the Star-Tribune that there was no threat of punishment or arrest toward the reporters. Nor did they invoke any First Amendment protections, he said.
“Of course we’re going to check into that. Our only source of information at the time were those reporters,” Samp said. “The conversations from a law enforcement perspective, in my opinion, is they were courteous, they were respectful. Not coercion, not demanding.”
Baldwin said that “perhaps” the university went “too far in this case” but that officials took the report seriously. He noted that authorities neither arrested nor threatened any other legal action against the newspaper or its reporters.
“Perhaps we erred on the side of being too rigid there perhaps in this case, but the intent was, ‘Listen, let’s get to the bottom of what was reported here,’” he said.
In his letter, Moats wrote that the university’s response to the original article has already had a negative impact on the Branding Iron’s coverage. When a sexual assault was reported on campus last month, “no reporter for the Branding Iron would do the story for fear of being subjected to heavy-handed treatment like the two reporters here had endured,” he wrote.
The newspaper instead appeared to copy and paste the university’s own release about the assault and publish it on their website. The author of the article is given only as the Branding Iron.