Does freedom of the press come at a higher price for student journalists?

By Emma Godmere

A visit from a bailiff is not something a student journalist normally expects on a sunny Tuesday morning.

And yet, every so often, we hear of a student press outlet caught in the crosshairs of legal action.

By Emma Godmere

A visit from a bailiff is not something a student journalist normally expects on a sunny Tuesday morning.

And yet, every so often, we hear of a student press outlet caught in the crosshairs of legal action.

Earlier this month, Canadian University Press republished to our newswire a story from the McGill Daily — one of our member papers — which outlined a new website called “McGillLeaks” that had recently surfaced. The anonymous operators of the site announced their intentions to release hundreds of sensitive documents pertaining to development and alumni relations at McGill University, including profiles, correspondence, and detailed histories relating to individual and corporate donations to the university. McGillLeaks mentioned in a statement on their website — which has since been removed — that their intentions were to shed light on the “corporate university’s inner workings” and create transparency.

This was an important story to cover for a number of reasons: namely because someone, somehow, found access to these confidential documents. While the details contained in them would likely pique the curiosity of some, the security breach is of concern to all: consider how much personal information any university has on its employees, students, alumni and donors.

The McGill Daily — and subsequently, Canadian University Press — refrained from going into detail when it came to the specifics included in these sensitive documents and focused more on their newfound public existence. But just as there are links embedded in this very piece, both stories posted on both news sites initially published a link to the McGillLeaks website.

Cue the bailiff visit. Both the Daily and CUP received letters from McGill University’s lawyers demanding removal of the link or else both outlets would be held liable for any damages suffered by the university or third parties affected by the documents' release.

As I picked up the phone and called CUP’s lawyer, a Supreme Court of Canada decision from last fall was at the forefront of my mind. The landmark Crookes v. Newton case saw the court unanimously rule that a story that contains a link to a site that has posted defamatory material cannot, in itself, be considered libelous — unless, of course that post or story that contains the link also contains libelous content.

The problem here, of course, was that we weren’t dealing with particularly defamatory content. We were dealing with confidential and sensitive information that the university felt very strongly should not be made public.

And yet, it had already been made public by another party. Would it not have been irresponsible to refrain from covering the story simply because of its potentially sensitive nature? Keeping in mind, of course, that it could very well have been just as irresponsible to reprint that sensitive nature in its entirety, an issue of which CUP was certinaly aware.

All of these issues were swirling in my mind as I made the call to our lawyer.

This would have been a far more difficult issue to navigate without that call, as any student outlet may not be certain of the next steps to take in this situation. Rarely does a campus publication have a lawyer on speed dial. Some may have industry or faculty mentors, and others may have connections to legal aid organizations on campus, but by and large a student press organization does not have the same level of legal support a mainstream outlet would have — and certainly not the same university administration can access. In this case, the McGill Daily was lucky to have a connection to a lawyer with whom they often consult, and for several years at Canadian University Press we have had a dedicated legal budget line, a policy that seeks to cover a portion of legal costs for our member papers and a lawyer with whom we liaise.

But even for us, we weren’t able to pursue the matter as far as a larger press organization may be passionate to do. It would have cost us thousands of dollars to commission research to see if we were in our right to keep that link in the story — and thousands of dollars is a massive chunk of change for the student press. Instead, we left the link out of the article. It was first removed from the CUP story as soon as we heard the Daily had been contacted by university lawyers.

But was it right for us to remove that link? Was it in our best interest, the Daily’s best interest and our readers’ best interest to do so?

At the risk of sounding cliché, we may never know — at least not in a soundly legal context.

Our lawyer still responded to the university’s counsel on our behalf, and inquired about some of those same initial questions I had — in particular, on what legal basis were they making this request to remove the link? A few messages back and forth only confirmed the university counsel’s desire to ensure all links stayed out of our stories.

The issue quickly turned into a debate about whether or not this was a move that stifled freedom of the press. The Montreal Gazette acknowledged this, reporting earlier this month that the Daily said it was “paying the price for being the little guy in a litigious confrontation and [was] being forced to suppress relevant information.”

Will there always be a higher cost for campus papers to pay, when it comes to defending freedom of the press? Campus papers by their very nature are not large companies, or backed by significant publishers — many are independent and thus simply don’t have the financial or legal resources to face these hurdles head-on every time.

The best solution we’ve been able to come up with so far? Working together. CUP and the McGill Daily remained in constant communication throughout the ordeal and often referenced previous legal concerns we, ourselves, and other young reporters we know have faced in the past. Through CUP, not only can papers access our lawyer and do so with some financial support, but there’s an entire network of student journalists in this country with combined years of editorial experience, many of whom have dealt with these very issues first-hand.

And as student journalists continue to do their best to defend the work that we do, that kind of support is priceless.

Emma Godmere is the National Bureau Chief for Canadian University Press, North America’s oldest student press co-operative, owned and operated by more than 80 student newspapers from coast to coast.