Opinion | Staff Editorials

The rules committee should follow through on its promise to protect student press

Last fall, Spectator’s editorial board asked Columbia’s board of trustees to advocate for student journalists by intervening in the University Senate’s revision of the new rules of conduct and adding explicit protections for student journalists covering protests on campus. Five months ago, after the senate and board of trustees failed to do so, University Senate Executive Committee Chair Sharyn O’Halloran promised that the rules committee would instead begin creating a set of guidelines ensuring the right of student journalists to cover protests on campus without risking sanctions or suspension.

O’Halloran stated that the committee would, among other things, collect data about best journalistic practices from Columbia’s peer institutions and gather input from the community. But five months have passed, and there is no evidence from the rules committee that any work has begun in earnest to fulfill that promise.

This is unacceptable.

The reasons for asking for explicit protection have not changed since last October. They are rooted in the basic principle that students have a right to know what is happening at their school—a right that is compromised when reporters risk facing disciplinary action if they cover a protest. We have seen firsthand the chilling effect created when we are forced to tell our reporters that we cannot honestly guarantee them immunity from disciplinary action if they cover a protest that violates the rules.

This is not an alarmist or doomsday attitude—last year, three of our reporters and photographers received letters of disciplinary warnings from the Office of Judicial Affairs and Community Standards after covering a No Red Tape protest at an admissions event.

On a campus characterized by its protest culture, allowing student journalists to be threatened with disciplinary action for reporting on those protests is particularly egregious.

Just a few weeks ago, an investigation—the first under the new rules of conduct—was opened after Columbia Divest for Climate Justice protested a British Petroleum event. Had our news reporters attended that protest, there is no guarantee they would not have been investigated for violating the rules.

When we asked the rules committee co-chairs—the only two people in the entire University authorized to talk to us about the committee's work on these guidelines—to tell us what steps they had taken to create these guidelines, they simply chose to ignore our inquiries. By operating in a black box, the rules committee has indicated that they do not have to report, explain, or take responsibility for the actions they take on behalf of the University community. They have also ensured that neither the press nor their constituents can hold them accountable for their work (or lack thereof).

A mere statement of support is meaningless without visible, timely action. Campus journalists were already passed over last semester when the senate chose not to include a media carve-out in the revisions. We were assured that this decision would be redressed with independent guidelines. Five months later, as the rules committee refuses to communicate with us, and in the absence of any evidence of progress or consultation, we can’t help but feel that members of the student press will remain unprotected.

Time is of the essence. The longer that there are no guidelines in place, the longer journalists remain open targets while covering protests. As students of a university that values open discourse and boasts a noted First Amendment scholar as its president, we have a duty to affirm the importance of journalism by protecting our journalists. We ask that the rules committee of the University Senate cease operating in a black box and deliver on its promise to consult with the University community—ourselves included—to produce guidelines protecting journalists immediately.

The authors are members of Spectator’s 140th editorial board.

To respond to this staff edit, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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