University of Tulsa Threatens Student Newspaper for Its Report on Facebook Harassment Case

Officials at the University of Tulsa sent a chilling message earlier this week to its student journalists: Stop investigating news we don't want you to cover or you will be punished.

Happy Friday, folks. The word of the day: censorship. It is wrapped cloak and dagger around a strange case involving the university which is now weaving its way into the national news cycle.

Tulsa student George "Trey" Barnett has been suspended and banned from campus for harassment due to posts featured on his Facebook page which criticized and attacked a fellow student and two faculty members. Yet, the posts were apparently not written or placed there by Barnett himself, but instead were crafted and posted by his husband. After some confidential proceedings in which no hearing was held and Barnett was not allowed to defend himself, the school suspended him until 2016 and informed him that if and when he returns he cannot complete his theatre major.

After receiving documents related to the case from Barnett, the crew at The Collegian, Tulsa's student newspaper, started digging in and asking questions. Administrators at first simply chose silence, but soon after followed with veiled threats.

The gist of those threats: The case and documents are confidential and sharing them -- either informally among staffers or publicly with readers -- violates school rules. Then, of course, in true administrative muckety-muck fashion, officials declined to explain what documents specifically were confidential, why they were confidential and what school rules explicitly forbid their release.

Click here to listen in on a short meeting between Collegian editors and the school's marketing and communications director. I'm writing from chilly Philadelphia at the moment, but the temperature is mild compared to the icy cold undertone of the director's words -- she utters some variation of "we simply want you to tread carefully" a half dozen times in less than nine minutes. And of course the whole time she stresses no one is out to get anyone or make things difficult, but, you know, ahem, just be careful.

As editor-in-chief Kyle Walker says in response to her at one point, "There's ways to say things that are threatening in non-threatening ways, right? And I feel like this is an example of that."

As Walker tells the Student Press Law Center about his follow-ups after that meeting, "Twice I asked them what information was confidential. They never gave me a list. I twice asked them for a copy of the disciplinary policies with the relevant sections highlighted, so that I would know what they were saying I would violate. I never got that either."

And so, in defiance of the school's ill-explained and overreaching wagging finger, the Collegian published its story -- after also consulting with the SPLC.

In a separate editorial, Collegian editorial consultant Nikki Hager criticizes both the harassment case decision and the threats made against the paper.

In her words: "It is absurd to punish a student for the speech of a third party. Trey did not write the posts that TU determined he was responsible for. ... On top of that, the administration then threatened and bullied the Collegian for investigating the matter, blatantly hampering freedom of the press. ... TU said that the Collegian might violate university policy but failed to cite the policy or policies at issue. If the administration disciplines the Collegian like they disciplined Trey, it will be because it did its job as a student newspaper."

She calls it, simply, "TU's Brand of Justice."

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