UO Senate calls for investigation of athletic department for possible free speech violation

This story has been updated to include a comment from UO Athletic Department spokesman Craig Pintens.

The University of Oregon Senate issued a request on Sunday to launch an investigation into a possible free speech violation by the UO Athletic Department regarding its threat to limit Emerald press credentials during an investigation of a UO football player. The request called for UO General Counsel Kevin Reed to initiate the investigation.

The story, published Nov. 17, details three incidents of violence over the past two years allegedly committed by tight end Pharaoh Brown. According to the article, the athletic department did not discipline Brown and legal charges were not pressed. The story caught national attention and received more than 33,000 views on the Emerald website.

Shortly after publishing the story, Emerald Sports Editor and author of the article Kenny Jacoby appeared on John Canzano’s radio show, The Bald-Faced Truth, and discussed the UO athletic department’s policy regarding media access to players.

Before publishing the Brown article, three Emerald reporters working on the story held a discussion with Oregon Football Sports Information Director Dave Williford about contacting players outside of athletic department protocol. Over the course of reporting, Jacoby had called kicker Matt Wogan for comment, following a prearranged interview in which Wogan declined to speak on the issue. The department’s policy states that all requests for interviews with players must go through the athletic department, and by calling a player directly, the Emerald knowingly violated that policy. Williford said the Emerald‘s access to credentials for future events would be limited if reporters continued to contact athletes outside of athletic department policy, according to Jacoby.

The senate request, written by UO Senate President Bill Harbaugh and VP Chris Sinclair, calls for an investigation of the athletic department’s policy that prohibits contacting student-athletes directly. It asks Reed to address whether the athletic department’s policy violates UO’s policies on Freedom of Inquiry and Free Speech and on Academic Freedom. The UO Academic Freedom policy states, “The University’s responsibility to help students to think critically and independently requires that members of the university community have the right to investigate and discuss matters, including those that are controversial, inside and outside of class, without fear of institutional restraint,” according to the policy website. The request also asks Reed to address whether Williford’s threat to the Emerald of restricting access to student-athletes violates UO free speech policy.

“We are asking that you investigate this incident, and the relevant UO Athletic Department policies, practices, and procedures, and give a report to the senate giving your interpretation of whether or not the UO policy on Freedom of Inquiry and Free Speech and the policy on Academic Freedom, or relevant State or Federal laws, have been violated,” the request states.

UO President Michael Schill, during a prearranged Q&A with the Emerald on Monday, said he thought it was interesting that the senate would pursue this matter, considering the senate’s official duties are regarding academics, not student life, according to Schill.

“We have to look at it and figure out whether that’s appropriate,” he said.

Schill said that he supports free speech and transparency, but isn’t fully familiar with the norms of relations between press and the athletic department.

“My initial reaction was, not having ever been on a team and fully understanding it, was that reporters should be able to ask people questions of any sort,” said Schill. “You should have the right to do that and I shouldn’t be able to penalize you for that.”

The deadline set by the senate for a responsive report from Reed is Jan. 10, 2017.

Reed was not immediately able to comment.

Update: UO Athletic Department spokesman Craig Pintens wrote via email in response to the Emerald on Monday: 

“There are no restrictions on speaking with our student-athletes.  In order to properly coordinate his or her requests with actual availability and avoid reporters contacting students incessantly, we have all requests for students and staff go through our athletic communication staff.  We give our students the right to be available or not be available for media availability.

In the sport of football, we grant more access to media outlets to our student-athletes and coaches than the majority of our Power Five counterparts.

It is erroneous to portray the athletic communications staff as pulling any credentials for a story that is written.  In this instance, the Daily Emerald met with Mr. Williford to discuss contacting student-athletes outside of the proper protocol and also contacting parents of students without going through the proper protocol.  This was brought to our attention by multiple student-athletes and one set of parents.  It was mentioned that the recourse could be the reduction of one credential for the Oregon State football game played in Corvallis.  Mr. Williford admitted that he had thought about imposing such restriction, but added he was not going to do so.  He never truly threatened to reduce one credential.”

Pintens said the UO Athletic Department would be taking no action regarding the senate’s submitted request.

Cooper Green and Kenny Jacoby contributed reporting to this article.

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Will Campbell

Will Campbell

I'm the Senior News Editor at the Emerald. I was born and raised in Vancouver, WA.