Last night there was an incident at my school where a student let her drunk boyfriend into a residence hall after he pulled a knife on two male students outside. City and campus police searched the building and arrested the suspect on two counts of aggravated assault. My staff rushed to get a story online this morning and gave their best effort at getting every bit of necessary information.
The police disclosed the female student’s name, her boyfriend’s name and two of the witness’s names. We used all of them in the story, as they are now public record.
Within 11 minutes of the article being posted, I had a message in my inbox from the female student asking me to either take down the story or remove both her and her boyfriend’s names. Figuring she was going through enough today, I partially obliged and removed her name as a courtesy. It was a temporary move, however, as I planned to later consult my adviser on the matter. As for her boyfriend, removing the name of the man who was arrested on campus for posing a safety threat to students was never an option.
A few minutes later, I received a Facebook message from one of the witnesses asking me to remove his name as well because he was receiving threats and we did not ask for his permission. I politely noted that we did not need his permission, but I agreed to remove his name. Though I doubt anyone was actually threatening him, citing him as merely a male witness rather than using his name would not detract from the story too much.
So, within an hour, I had ripped every name from this article except those of the man arrested, the police officer we spoke to and a few students who posted comments on Facebook while the event was happening (no complaints from them so far).
By the afternoon, we’d spoken with our adviser, who is an adjunct journalism professor and former managing editor of the then St. Petersburg Times, and decided we would put the female student’s name back in the story. A major local newspaper had already released it by this time, anyway. We decided to wait 24 hours.
This evening, we received two messages on our Facebook account asking us if it was necessary to use the female student’s name (though it was removed from the story, it still showed up in a preview on Facebook). When the student asked me to remove it this morning, I didn’t have a great answer. But now I do:
As a student-run publication, it is our responsibility to hold faculty, staff, community members and students accountable for their actions. This student brought a non-student into her dorm room. Not just any non-student, but a drunk one yielding a knife. Sure, this may not be an incriminating offense, but it’s irresponsible. It may have been inadvertent, but she endangered others with her actions. By printing her name, we’re holding her accountable. Maybe the next student who finds his or herself in a similar predicament will make a different decision — one that not only won’t get their name on the front page of their student newspaper, but won’t put anyone in danger.
I admit, I feel for the girl. I’m sure she has a million reasons as to why she made these decisions and I’m sure at least a few of them are valid. Still, we have a job to do as a student-run publication. And by publishing this student’s name, we’re doing it.
This issue comes after two other frustrating situations that demonstrate how little people know about the rights of the press. Last week, we were attacked for running an opinion column supporting creationism. According to at least one student, it was my job as editor-in-chief to tell the writer of this piece — who so bravely and boldly expressed a personal opinion knowing its unpopularity among college students — that her beliefs contained factual errors. He criticized of me of not abiding by AP Style. I’ll note, this student is not a journalism major. I politely explained to him that opinion pieces do not reflect the beliefs of an entire newspaper, just the writer and whoever else happens to agree. Even if this writer wanted me to publish an opinion piece on why the sky was green or 2 + 2 = 5, I would.
The discussion brought about by this scenario was great. That means we’re doing something right. But its scary to think people can flip to the opinion page, which is clearly labeled, and think they’re reading something that is supposed to be a news story.
The week before this incident occurred, the supreme court justice of our student government barged into my office to let me know we need to run it by him before we publish anything regarding the court. In this particular case, he was referring to a quote. I handled the situation as professionally as possible, essentially telling him that is simply not our responsibility. This student is an aspiring judge, yet doesn’t seem to understand First Amendment rights. Again, scary.
While the last few weeks have made the prospect of graduating all the more exciting (66 days!), I know I’ll have to face people like this for the rest of my life, especially in this profession. There’s always going to be someone who thinks I’m wrong no matter how right I am. I can handle it. I don’t pity myself, I only feel sorry for those who refuse to educate themselves. If anything, I guess that should serve as my incentive to keep writing.