Screw those public records laws, I'm with the government and can do whatever I want to do!!!!!
Was ASU protecting victims' names or breaking the law?
Stuart Warner, Phoenix 10:16 p.m. MST December 6, 2014
It feels kind of creepy when you realize someone has shared information from your e-mail about a story you were working on before it was published. Even if that person had good intentions.
On Nov. 23, we ran Anne Ryman's outstanding investigative piece about sexual assaults at Arizona State University — and the lack of severe punishment for the assailants both there and at universities nationwide.
Days before the investigation reached our readers, however, someone sent a copy of e-mail exchanges between our corporate attorney and a senior associate general counsel at ASU to jimromenesko.com. I was one of only a handful of people who had a copy of the electronic messages.
Jimromenesko.com is a blog where journalists go to get all the latest news and gossip about our industry. So I suspected the culprit who intercepted our e-mails was familiar with the journalism website and was appalled by how the university responded to our requests for information.
RELATED: ASU student shares sexual assault story
On Nov. 18, jimromensko.com posted a blog with the contents of the messages, outlining the difficulty we were having getting the names of sexual-assault victims from the universities. We had requested the names of 36 victims and been denied all of them.
The university refused then, and now, arguing that "the names would not be released on grounds that it would have a chilling effect on sexual violence reporting."
Noble reasoning, perhaps, but against the law. Subsection C of the Arizona Criminal Code requires that law-enforcement agencies — and that includes campus police departments — make victims' names public as long as certain information, such as the date of birth and address, is redacted.
It's not cool in this business when someone else publishes information about your story before you do. But we have to live with that. Jimromenesko.com had every right to use the information. The e-mails were sent through the university's computers, which makes them public.
The larger issue is why Arizona's largest university continues to withhold or redact documents in defiance of the law. This happened previously when Ryman requested minutes from a meeting of police chiefs discussing morale problems within the university's police department. We got a copy anyway and published the story.
In this latest refusal, you may think that the university did the right thing by hiding the names of the victims.
But that's not Arizona State's decision to make. We have a policy to protect the identities of sexual-assault victims at all costs unless they choose to go public.
The university's attorney, citing studies, said it did not want us to contact the victims because "reminders of the attack or abuse can cause flashbacks, which emotionally place the victim in the moment of the trauma."
Again, a fine rationale.
But the university also may not have wanted us questioning other women or men who were assaulted because it is one of 88 schools being investigated by the federal government over the way it has responded to these attacks.
Both of the women Ryman used in the story felt their cases had been badly handled. You can watch a stirring video of one of them discussing the assault and the response at asuassault.azcentral.com.
Ryman also interviewed others for the story who expressed similar disappointment. We expect we could have found more who felt the same way. And that wouldn't look good for ASU.
By comparison, the women who were in our story felt we treated them fairly.
"I think it was an accurate description and should put some pressure on ASU without being biased at all," the woman we identified in the story as M. wrote to us in an e-mail. "My Dad actually called me in tears after he read it and was so proud of how things were portrayed and the light that was shed on how, unfortunately, most of these appear to be mishandled by ASU."
And so you don't think I'm creepy, too, we asked permission to share her e-mail.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Stuart Warner is a senior content manager and Pulitzer Prize-winning editor. He supervises coverage of the border, immigration, higher education, real estate and the environment.
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