First Amendment Battle over JMU Story

By: Michael Hyland Email
By: Michael Hyland Email

Reporters at a student newspaper in the Valley say they are in the middle of a battle involving the First Amendment.

A pair of students writing for the James Madison University newspaper, "The Breeze," say they face judicial charges because of their efforts to report a story.

The paper's editor-in-chief, Tim Chapman, says a reporter was working on a story for the October 19 edition by following up on a timely notification.

The notification said a man went into a women's bathroom in Hillside Hall and opened a shower curtain while two women were showering.

"Obviously, any time a crime like that happens on campus, we're going to try to cover it and let students know as much as they can because sometimes the timely notices are vague," says Chapman.

Chapman says the reporter, Katie Hibson, went into the residence hall as a guest of people living there. He says a housing official asked her to leave.

"So, the next thing I did is I printed out the dorm policies. And, there was nothing in there that said she couldn't be there, especially because she was being escorted by residents," says Chapman.

Chapman says he joined the reporter at the residence hall. A writer for "The Breeze" who lives in the residence hall accompanied them. When Chapman tried to explain the policy to housing officials, he and the reporter were told to go.

The story ran. A few days later, the two writers received e-mails informing them they faced charges of trespassing, disorderly conduct and non-compliance with an official request.

"It kind of annoyed me, but I wasn't surprised at the same time because based on other stories we've covered this year, the school hasn't shown that it fully understands the First Amendment," says Chapman.

Roger Soenksen has worked with "Breeze" reporters for almost 30 years and teaches communication law at JMU. He says, in that time, he has never seen a situation like this one.

"I can't think of one iota of wrongdoing on their part. In fact, I am absolutely amazed it's gotten this far," says Soenksen.

"We're just doing our job, in my opinion. And everybody else here knows we haven't taken anything overboard," says Chapman.

Don Egle, the spokesperson for JMU, declined to comment on this issue. He says the university has a policy of not commenting on cases dealing with potential disciplinary matters.

The students have to schedule a meeting with the judicial affairs office by Thursday. They're trying to get help from the Student Press Law Center.

Chapman says he is confident he won't be found in violation of the university's policies.


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