In Bridgewater, a dispute over free press and privacy

I had wanted to talk about this yesterday on “Beat the Press,” but was unable to verify the facts in time. Today, the Boston Globe’s Peter Schworm reports on a controversy that has enveloped The Comment, the student newspaper at Bridgewater State University, which is under fire for reporting the name of an alleged rape victim who spoke at a public rally.

University officials are insisting that [see below] pressuring The Comment to remove the woman’s name from the online version of its story. But on Friday, The Comment’s editor, Mary Polleys, told me that the woman had been identified by name in an announcement sent before the rally to about 400 people via Facebook. The outdoor rally was attended by about 200 people. And, Polleys said, the woman was introduced by name and then proceeded to address the crowd through a bullhorn. Indeed, the story, by Leah Astore, is accompanied by a photo of the woman holding the bullhorn and standing before a large crowd.

I am not identifying the woman here only because I don’t wish to become a player in this controversy. But I see nothing wrong in what The Comment did, and I think Polleys has taken exactly the right stand in refusing to unpublish key details. Essentially The Comment is in trouble for committing journalism.

The one decision The Comment made that I might question is identifying the woman’s previous college on the basis of information that it found online. Under the ethical guidelines that are followed by virtually all news organizations, victims and alleged victims of sexual assault are not identified by name without their consent. It’s clear that the speaker at the rally had given her consent to be identified publicly, only to have second thoughts once she saw her name and photo in The Comment. But I’m uncomfortable with the paper’s decision to add details that the woman herself did not offer.

Another interesting aspect is the unintended consequences of what happens to news in the online era. If this story had appeared only in print, then it wouldn’t have circulated beyond campus, and it’s unlikely that it would have sparked much of an uproar. Certainly no one would be calling for the unpublishing of the woman’s name. (We recently talked about unpublishing on “Beat the Press.”) Indeed, this entire story strikes me as an example of the increasing confusion we’re all experiencing over what’s public and what’s private in the age of social media.

The Brockton Enterprise has been covering this story, and it appears to have a worthwhile follow-up today. I can’t get GateHouse stories to load today, but perhaps it will pop up later.

My friend Harvey Silverglate’s organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has gotten involved as well.

And the story has now gone national at JimRomenesko.com.

Note: Polleys informs me by email that though the administration is pressuring The Comment to remove the speaker’s name, it has not insisted on it. It’s a fine line, but it’s worth making the distinction. Needless to say, the administration is welcome to weigh in here as well.

10 thoughts on “In Bridgewater, a dispute over free press and privacy

  1. Aaron Read

    Given that Bridgewater State is a state school, can they legally demand a removal of the speaker’s name? Can they even ask for it? How does the First Amendment play here?

  2. Why do we insist on the isolation of those who are the victim of certain crimes? Is it because of the victim’s gender? Is it because we see the victim not as a person but a form of chattel? Or, it is because we secretly believe that some criminal activities are as much the fault of the target as they are the aggressor.

    The issue is again in the national spotlight because of a story in the student newspaper, The Comment, at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. The young woman who was the target of the aggression made a heroic decision to not only identify herself publically, but to express her story at a public rally for the benefit of other women. Editors at The Comment are now under attack for identifying the young women in an article covering the rally.

    It has been the norm for news organizations to not identify victims of sexual abuse. But why? To state the obvious, we do not do the same for victims of assault, theft, homicide, arson, fraud, genocide, war and hate crimes, etc. If a woman is penetrated with a knife or bullet, no matter how violent or how damaging she will be identified, if the penetration includes genitals, she will remain anonymous.

    In 1920 with passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, women were given the right to vote. Prior to that legislation, women were without representation and could be considered chattel. Essentially, the property of their husbands, fathers, or senior male in the family and a rape could be bad for any property transfer. Even in the 21st century women are expected to wear white on their wedding day as a testament to their lack of sexual experience.

    What is amazing is that we still consider rape to be testament of sexual experience, and not as an indicator of sexual violence and exploitation. The National Institute of Justice states that about 27 percent of college women reported experiences that met the legal requirement for rape. That makes rape one of the highest criminal activities on the average college campus, and one that is kept the most secret.

    That has to change.

    It will not, however, as long as women are made to feel stigmatized by the actions of a violent aggressor over which they have no control. When police, courts, and news organizations disallow the identification of the target of a sexual aggressor, we are in effect telling them that they changed by the experience of being a victim. Not changed in the way anyone subject to violence might be changed, but changed in the view of others. That somehow, they may have been at least in part at fault.

    We need to change the idea that a woman targeted for sexual aggression needs to be embarrassed because she has been targeted. The stigma of rape exists primarily in the minds of men who see the woman as somehow tainted by the experience. In seeking to protect women, men are in effect further compounding the experience by enveloping it in a shroud of secrecy.

    Stop the victimization of women by shining a light on the problem, and not continuing to sweep it under the rug where it can grow and fester in darkness.

  3. Nancy Mades

    Thank you, James Craven, for your thoughtful and correct assessment of why treating victims of sex crimes as “damaged goods” by withholding their names is another form of victimization.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Nancy and @James: Philosophically, I agree. The issue here, though, is whether a person who allows her name to be used on an online promotional flier, is introduced at a public event by name and then proceeds to address the crowd — through a bullhorn, no less — is then entitled to claim the right to privacy after the fact. The editor of The Comment was not trying to make a philosophical point, just follow normal journalistic ethics.

  4. Matt Kelly

    >>the right to privacy after the fact.

    Once you announced your name and identify yourself in the public square, you can’t un-ring the bell.

    And as to whether her name should be ‘unpublished’– if this were 1985, and the Comment had published her name in print after her her rally, and then she wanted to halt the Comment’s presses and confiscate printed copies, we’d all be much closer to the idea that this is censorship we shouldn’t condone. It’s still censorship today in the online world, and we still shouldn’t condone it, even if the doing of it is easy and pain-free.

  5. L.K. Collins

    Inasmuch as you agree, Dan, with the assessment by James Craven and Nancy Mades, then that must mean that you view result of journalistic ethics in this area as being a victimization of women, too.

    As for someone who has put himself or herself out as a public figure suddenly wishing to reclaim their privacy, it is neither unheard-of or irrational.

    It is, however, a failure a sign of the to understand the consequences of one’s actions before the fact.

    If this woman didn’t want to go to Chicago, why did she get on the train?

  6. Peter Saccocia

    Dan–maybe you can answer this question. Following what L.K stated above, would it be problematic for The Comment to do the student a favor and redact her name, even though they don’t have to in principle? In other words, if the student recognized that she made a mistake (buyers remorse), and then asks for privacy after the fact, is it unheard of for media outlets to honor that kind of request? Or would this be viewed as a dangerous precedent to be avoided?

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Peter: Thank you for checking in. I haven’t thought this through, but I don’t see why there would be a serious problem in terms of either ethics or precedent if The Comment removed the speaker’s name and photo from the online version of its story. But I question what it would accomplish.

      My understanding, based on a private conversation I had with someone close to the situation, is she is mainly concerned about her alleged assailant finding out where she is now and stalking her. That bell can’t be unsung. In fact, I found her on a social network in about 20 seconds, complete with her previous school, even though she had already removed her profile from that network.

      Moreover, the earlier version of The Comment story would remained cached and available for some time to come, though admittedly it would be harder to find.

  7. Dan,
    Per your question, no, it is not possible to put the cat back in the bag once it has been allowed out.

    As to whether the editor was making a philosophical point, I can only say that I have not spoken with the person. I would wonder, however, if the move to print the name was not part of a wider philosophical statement. Perhaps, you know.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @James: As I wrote, I have interviewed the editor. She was not trying to make a philosophical point. The paper covered a public event and quoted a speaker introduced at the rally by name. That’s really all there was to it.

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