Alex Kotran is a photo-journalist working for the Ohio State Lantern where he is studying. He was on the scene when cows broke out of their pens and roamed around campus. He was promptly arrested for criminal trespass and the Ohio State University is now refusing to supply him with counsel. The school has basically told Kotran that he can wait until the cows come home, but he is on his own.
Kotran was commended by the Publications Committee of the paper, but even that committee declined to pass a resolution calling for the University to supply counsel to student journalists in such cases. The University is claiming that it cannot supply counsel do to a conflict of interest though it has not said that such support is prohibited under Ohio law.
The University’s position is deeply flawed and disturbing. The University actually flips the governing law on conflicts. The hiring of outside counsel is often the solution to a conflict — not the creation of a conflict of interest. If, as here, the University considers itself the complaining party or the victim, it can select independent counsel just as it would for a professor or employee who is accused of wrongdoing. The question is whether the university has an ethical or legal obligation to its student journalists. I believe that answer is clearly yes. Kotran was acting as a journalist. He was not engaged in some prank or frolic. Police often have such confrontations with journalists, who try to comply with orders while getting the story.
Jim Lynch, director of Media Relations, said “[t]he university generally cannot provide legal representation in criminal matters, even to employees.” However, most criminal allegations do not involve some acting within the scope their duties like a journalist. The university seems to take the position that it is willing to benefit from student journalists, but they are on their own if they run into trouble. This is analogous to a professor being charged over a writing in violation of academic freedom. Here the issue is journalistic privilege. It may be true that Kotran failed to obey commands of the police, but there appears an over-reaction and, at a minimum, Kotran deserves counsel to present his side of the dispute.
Ohio State is not remaining neutral by refusing counsel, but working for the prosecution of one of its students who was trying to carry out his journalistic duties. It is, in my view, a calculated act of abandonment that is an affront to academic and journalistic principles.
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