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Tuesday 22 October 2019

Trinity 'bug' row: law professors clash over university paper's secret recording

Claims of ‘hazing’ at Trinity College in Dublin
Claims of ‘hazing’ at Trinity College in Dublin
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

LAW professors at Trinity College have clashed over whether a university newspaper was justified in secretly recording an alleged society initiation ceremony.

An article about the alleged “hazing” incident appeared in ‘The University Times’ on March 15, prompted two investigations by Trinity authorities.

One probe is focusing on the alleged incident, involving a male-only sports society called the Knights of the Campanile. Hazing is an abusive and often humiliating form of initiation into a group.

A second investigation, by the university’s Junior Dean, relates to the methods used to obtain the story.

A listening device was placed outside the on-campus apartment of a member of the society but was discovered before it could be retrieved by reporters. However, the newspaper reported that raised voices and taunting and jeering were heard from outside the building.

It has defended its actions, saying they were in the public interest, citing the High Court’s refusal in 2005 to grant orders restraining RTÉ from broadcasting secret recordings exposing the mistreatment of residents at Leas Cross Nursing Home.

Now law professors at the university have clashed over the issue, offering differing views on whether the outcome of the RTÉ case could be used to justify the secret recording.

Three Trinity law school professors, Neville Cox, Oran Doyle and David Kenny have said the legal defence used by ‘The University Times’ was “fundamentally flawed”.

However, Trinity associate law professor Dr Eoin O’Dell has said the analysis by his three colleagues was “incomplete” and that the newspaper could rely on the RTÉ case to argue publication of the story was in the public interest.

Dr O’Dell’s views on the matter have been supported by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

Writing in a different university-based publication, ‘Trinity News’, Professor Cox, Associate Professor Doyle and Assistant Professor Kenny said the RTÉ case cited by ‘The University Times’ did not establish that it was lawful for journalists to conduct secret recordings.

They said the case, taken against RTÉ by the director of nursing and owners of Leas Cross, was found to involve “legitimate public interest issues of a very high weight” given the nature of the allegations and the vulnerability of the nursing home residents.

Mr Justice Frank Clarke, who is now the Chief Justice, refused a prior restraint order. However, he also said the secret filming of the plaintiffs and their employees did amount to a breach of their privacy rights and that they could seek damages for this at a full trial. He also prohibited RTÉ from further trespassing at the nursing home.

The three professors said the RTÉ case involved the privacy rights of people in their place of work and argued that privacy in a dwelling receives a much higher level of protection under the Constitution than privacy rights in general.

“It is difficult to imagine anything occurring in student residences that would involve a public interest sufficiently weighty to allow journalists breach the constitutionally protected dwelling by listening outside student residences, trespassing in student residences, or bugging student residences,” they wrote.

“To say that such journalistic practices are legally or constitutionally protected is, in our view, a misunderstanding of the law.”

However, in a response published by ‘The University Times’, Dr O’Dell said that while there was “a great deal of common ground” between him and his colleagues, he believed their analysis was “incomplete”.

He said the RTE case showed “a sufficiently strong public interest” can justify the publication of information obtained in breach of privacy.

The journalists, he said, would have been aware the Junior Dean could sanction them for the means by which they came across the story. But they took that risk believing it to be in the public interest.

Dr O’Dell said the issue was one of judgment as to whether the public interest justified the publication of the hazing story.

He said that in his view the newspaper could rely on the RTÉ case to argue publication of the story was in the public interest.

Since publishing the hazing article ‘The University Times’ has suffered a significant backlash.

A student-wide referendum will be held next month on funding for the newspaper after a petition gathered the 500 signatures required for it to be called.

Students will be asked to vote on whether to remove the salary and accommodation of the newspaper’s editor and to reduce funding down to €3,000.

The NUJ’s Irish secretary, Seamus Dooley, has said the union’s ethics council strongly supported the editorial team at ‘The University Times’.

Mr Dooley has also criticised the referendum, saying it had been called based on a false claim of unethical behaviour.

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