New Texas law on Title IX reporting leaves college journalists and advisors in a tough spot

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A state law that took effect Sept. 1, trailed by another taking effect Jan. 1, aims to strengthen the requirements for reporting alleged sexual improprieties on Texas college campuses.

But the two measures, designed to help enforce federal Title IX guarantees against gender discrimination and sexual improprieties at colleges, fail to define or defend the right of college journalists and their advisors to freely gather sources and report news, including investigating accusations of malfeasance.

College students are not considered school employees under the new laws, although reporting done by student journalists is often considered the responsibility of college newspaper advisors.

The new law is part of an ongoing discussion among college press advisors.

“The thing that is kind of throwing a confusing item in the works is that [the new state law] says ‘all university employees,’ ” said Fred Stewart, executive director of the Texas Intercollegiate Press Association. “There are some of our advisors who are faculty and advisors and some others who are only advisors.”

Any law that reduces students’ ability to confide in their advisors creates a conflict that needs to be addressed, he said. “It will be a topic at our annual conference in March.”

The newly effective law provides more specifics on who is responsible for reporting possible incidents of sexual harassment or abuse. The law that goes into effect Jan. 1 specifies reporting requirements and penalties.

“Texas is ahead of the curve in that these laws are making everyone a mandatory reporter,” said Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel at the Student Press Law Center (referring to persons required to report knowledge of allegations, not to college journalists).  While student journalists are unlikely to be disciplined for not divulging a confidential source who comes forward to report a possible Title IX violation, advisors are very much on the hook.

“There really needs to be some understanding of the bind this can put advisors to the newspaper in,” Hiestand said.

Chris Evans, president of the College Media Association and advisor to a student newspaper in Vermont, said that, for now, it’s important that student journalists understand that they can no longer share with their advisors any information they receive on Title IX complaints from confidential sources. They need to know, he said, that advisors are now required to pass that information on to other officials.

“Advisors work with students one-on-one a lot of the time and there is an expectation of confidentiality,” he said.

Universities are given some latitude on the shape of their Title IX reporting mandates, although all are required to protect students from sexual predators both among the student body and on staff.

In extreme cases of neglect, penalties can be severe. The U.S. Department of Education earlier this month fined Michigan State University $4.5 million for failing to protect students from convicted sex offender and former employee Larry Nassar.

The Texas law is among the most stringent in the U.S. The biggest change is in its scope: Previously, staff members, including professors, were “mandatory reporters” – people who have no latitude in deciding whether to report Title IX complaints. The new law adds all employees and contractors of public, private and independent colleges and universities to the list of those required to report complaints. It specifies that students are not considered employees.

When Dan Malone heard about a possible Title IX story in his newsroom last year, he knew some of the sources. But his decades of journalism experience told him he had to protect those sources, even in his role as advisor to Tarleton State University’s news agency.

The story ran and the school, part of the Texas A&M System, issued an official reprimand to Malone for not reporting the information and threatened to fire him if it happened again.

“I have now told my students that if there is a confidential source, do not tell me because I have to report it,” Malone said.

His students, aware of the episode, still regard him as a reliable instructor. But they are more guarded about sensitive information they share with him.

Student journalist Diana Valdez worked for months this year on a story regarding an alleged sexual assault on a student. She told Malone.

“With the new law, [Malone] had to go to Title IX and tell them one of his students was working on this story,” Valdez said.

But she felt that some journalists may not be so willing to even take a chance on tackling a possible Title IX story.

“What happens if I work on another story and decide not to tell my advisor,” Valdez said. “Or what if someone just feels it’s going to get them into trouble?” 

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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