Loyola punishes Maroon reporter for ethically and legally reported story


Gabrielle Korein

Staff photo for Maroon reporter, Kloe Witt

Macie Batson, Editor In Chief

Loyola University New Orleans is punishing Maroon journalist Kloe Witt for her work ethically and legally reporting on a story, drawing condemnation from at least one First Amendment advocacy group.

Loyola accused Witt of unauthorized recording and falsification or misuse of university records. She was found responsible for unauthorized recording, which she denies and is currently appealing.

Last month, The Maroon published a story on a Loyola student, Luke Sahs, who was arrested and later charged on a count of stalking on March 2 in the Orleans Room by the New Orleans Police Department.

An official from the Loyola University Police Department told a Maroon editor during a phone conversation the night of the arrest to send a reporter to the police station for more information about the arrest. On that instruction, Witt visited the LUPD station on Loyola’s main campus and found the doors locked. She rang the doorbell and was greeted by an officer, who she introduced herself to as a reporter from The Maroon. She said she was reporting on the arrest that evening and looking for more information, and the officer admitted her into the locked office.

Shortly after Witt arrived, Marquita Morgan-Jones, assistant director for residential community standards, also arrived at the station to get information about the arrest.

A second officer came into the lobby and began briefing Witt and Morgan-Jones, and Witt began visibly recording the briefing on her phone. During the briefing, Witt asked the officer if she could take a photo of the arrest documents, and instead, the officer offered to make a copy for her.

When the officer handed Witt the documents, Morgan-Jones confronted Witt and asked who she was. Witt again identified herself as a Maroon reporter. Morgan-Jones demanded Witt hand over the documents and leave, which Witt did.

Witt wrote the story that night, which appeared on The Maroon’s website.

Eleven days later, Witt received a notice from Loyola that she was facing disciplinary charges.

According to Loyola’s Student Code of Conduct, unauthorized recording is “any unauthorized use of electronic or other devices to make an audio or video still frame or photographic record of any person without their prior knowledge or without their effective consent when the person or persons being recorded have a reasonable expectation of privacy and/or such recording is likely to cause injury or distress.”

Reasonable expectation of privacy is a component of privacy law that states individuals have a right to keep information private in particular settings and during particular activities. Loyola’s policy points out some typical situations where a reasonable expectation of privacy applies, such as a restroom or a locker room changing facility.

Recording is a standard journalistic practice to maintain an accurate record of interactions. In Louisiana, the law states that as long as one person is aware the recording is taking place — in this case, Witt — it is perfectly legal to record. Witt said she did not believe there was a reasonable expectation of privacy, given that she was in a police station accessible to the public, she had identified herself as a reporter on the job, and was invited in by LUPD for the purposes of reporting on a story.

In a legal memo analyzing Witt’s case, an attorney for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression wrote, “The ‘Reasonable expectation of privacy’ standard referenced in Loyola’s recording policy is a legal term of art, and the key term is ‘reasonable.’ In this situation, the question is whether a reasonable person would presume that conversations had in the presence of a journalist — or even an unknown stranger — would remain private. Such a presumption is plainly unreasonable.”

Likewise, in 2001, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeal, in the case of Kee v. City of Rowlett, ruled that a reasonable expectation of privacy exists when an “individual, by his conduct, has exhibited an actual expectation of privacy; that is, whether he has shown that he [sought] to preserve [something] as private.”

Student Press Counsel for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression Lindsie Rank, said that since Loyola’s recording policy only prohibits recordings when the person being recorded can reasonably expect privacy, there is no reason it should apply in this case.

“Loyola clearly promises students freedom of speech and of the press,” Rank said. “They should not be punishing student journalists for reporting on important campus issues or engaging in basic newsgathering practices, like asking for documents or openly recording interviews.”

Witt’s initial student conduct hearing was held on March 20. Following that hearing, Witt was found not responsible for falsification or misuse of university records, but she was found responsible for unauthorized recording.

Witt is now appealing the hearing’s decision on three grounds — partiality, disregard for rights, and arbitrary and capricious decisions.

Regarding the partiality claim, Witt is pointing out that Morgan-Jones holds a dual role within the university. Beyond her role with residential life, Morgan-Jones serves as a hearing officer for the Office of Student Conduct. According to the Code of Conduct, “the University does not allow conflicts of interest, real or reasonably perceived, by those investigating or adjudicating allegations under this policy or its related procedures.”

Morgan-Jones was the primary witness against Witt.

Witt’s contention is that Morgan-Jones’ dual appointment made the fact that the hearing was held in the office where she holds that dual appointment is a conflict of interest.

Regarding the arbitrary and capricious decision claim, Witt is claiming that the university arbitrarily declared that the recording was done where there was a reasonable expectation of privacy, despite her repeatedly identifying herself as a reporter.

And regarding the disregard for her rights, Witt is pointing out that the university withheld evidence from her in advance of the hearing and did not give her adequate information to prepare for the hearing. Witt was never given a copy of the complaint against her.

Witt is also pointing out that the Student Code of Conduct assures the right of all students to freely “examine and discuss all questions of interest to them and to express opinions publicly and privately.”

And it assures the student media the right “to be a free and independent voice acting in the best interest of the university in the pursuit of truth.”

The Code of Conduct also ensures that “representatives of the student communications media have the right to review non-privileged information in the academic community; the community has the responsibility to share this information so that these students may perform their functions to the fullest.”

When asked to respond to the details of this case and the appropriateness of the sanctions, Vice President of Student Affairs Alicia Bourque said that Loyola’s student conduct process is designed to be fair and is applied consistently to all students.

“The desired outcome is to uphold the dignity of each person and to help students better understand their responsibilities to the Loyola community,” Bourque said. “When an allegation is made that a student may have violated the code of conduct, a process commences that gives the student the opportunity to present their position and, if found responsible, to reflect on and learn from any missteps.”

The Rev. Justin Daffron, interim university president, declined the opportunity to comment on this story.

Witt said that she would have willingly granted privacy if it had been requested, but nothing indicated a need for it.

“I followed every rule and was just doing my job as a journalist,” Witt said. “I was doing that job and doing it right, and I’m still being punished.”

Patrick Hamilton contributed to this story.