The Office of Institutional Equity at the University of Missouri has formally included journalists on the list of those who can protect the confidentiality of sexual assault survivors in the Title IX process.
University officials have not considered journalists to be mandated reporters, said Andy Hayes, assistant vice chancellor and Title IX administrator for the Office of Institutional Equity. But that was never listed in the exceptions included for Title IX reporting, until last week.
Being a mandated reporter means that a university employee must report knowledge of a potential Title IX violation. The university’s Title IX website now formally assures survivors of sexual assault and others protected by Title IX that they can talk with journalists in campus outlets without automatically being reported. This leaves that decision to the survivor.
Current university news operations include the Columbia Missourian, Vox Magazine, KBIA, KOMU and Missouri Business Alert.
The UM System’s Title IX website now lists journalists as exceptions to mandated reporting requirements along with health care providers, counselors, lawyers and their associated staff. Hayes said journalists were told in 2020 about the policy.
Explicitly writing that journalists are exempt from the mandated reporting policy is necessary, said Lindsie Rank, student press counsel at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
“An unwritten policy that nobody knows about isn't very effective,” Rank said. “If [journalists] read their employee handbook and it says that all employees are mandatory reporters, and here's a list of exceptions and journalists aren't included, how are they supposed to know that they're not gonna get in trouble for writing about a Title IX situation and not reporting that to the administration of the university?”
Rank said that editing the policy will both allow journalists to do their job and survivors to have control over their own stories. “It's really a great move, both from a First Amendment perspective and also from a perspective of respecting the free speech rights of the survivors,” Rank added.
The MU Office of Institutional Equity will present the revision to the Board of Curators at a future date, when other changes to the policy are made.
Experts want other universities to follow MU's steps.
“I'm ecstatic, this is how it's supposed to work,” said Genelle Belmas, an associate professor who has proposed the same change at the University of Kansas. “Because what I don't want to have to happen is for victims or survivors to not have another outlet. To have their stories tamped down.”
For Rank, the decision in MU will serve as an example to get as many universities as possible to explicitly state in their policies that journalists are not included as mandatory reporters.
“It's gonna be great to be able to use the University of Missouri as an example of a place that has made that really important step,” said Rank.