School alleges student harassed prof. Video tells a different story.

Cassie Conklin, a journalist for Frostburg State University's independent student newspaper The Bottom Line, wrote an article about the school’s failure to help an R.A. who contracted COVID-19.

After the story picked up traction, the school summoned her for a harassment claim.

Cassie Conklin — a journalist for Frostburg State University’s independent student newspaper The Bottom Line — was subjected to a harassment investigation after writing an article about the Maryland school’s failure to help a resident assistant who contracted COVID-19. It wasn’t until after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education got involved that the university stopped the investigation.

According to FIRE, Conklin wrote an article in late October about “student protests against a staff member, during which time she took photographs of the staff member’s door.” 

On Oct. 30, she wrote an unrelated article detailing a resident assistant’s battle with COVID-19, which noted that the university did not provide accessible “testing, alternative housing, or support services” for the student.

On Friday, Nov. 20, the Baltimore Sun referred to Conklin’s story. On Monday, November 23, Frostburg State administrators called The Bottom Line’s editor-in-chief and faculty adviser to a meeting to discuss allegations that Conklin had harassed the staff member an entire month earlier.

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The university claimed that Conklin placed a threatening note under the staff member’s door, and requested that The Bottom Line punish Conklin. One day later, Conklin was summoned to a meeting with the vice president for student affairs, who told Conklin that she would be investigated as both a student and an employee of the newspaper. 

Conklin received a $75 stipend while writing stories for The Bottom Line, which did not constitute an official employment relationship.

According to FIRE, “FSU could not explain why it waited 33 days to initiate the investigation. Moreover, the investigation was actually initiated the next business day after her report on coronavirus in the dorms gained mass media attention.”

A few weeks earlier, FIRE had written a letter to Frostburg State, expressing concern that the university used “periodic reviews of students serving as Resident Assistants to penalize RAs who criticize the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

The university claimed that it had obtained video evidence of the alleged harassment incident. However, the video merely shows Conklin reattaching the note — which had a positive message — to the door after it fell minutes earlier. The message read, “Hey Missy, I miss you dearly. Thanks for teaching me all I know” and was signed “Antwann.” 

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According to FIRE, the university told Conklin on Nov. 30 that “there was no evidence that she violated FSU’s student code of conduct, and that she will not be punished as a student.”

Because the university did not indicate that it had dropped its investigation into Conklin as a newspaper employee, FIRE and the Student Press Law Center wrote a letter to Frostburg State President Ronald Nowaczyk, urging him to “immediately conclude any investigations into Conklin… without punishment and make clear that TBL is not required to comply with any directive to investigate its staff or publish anything concerning an investigation.”

The day after FIRE sent the letter, Frostburg State announced that it had ended the investigation into Conklin, who would not be subjected to punishment.

FIRE Individual Rights Defense Program Director Lindsie Rank told Campus Reform that her team is “happy that the university has ended its investigation against Cassie, but we have serious concerns about the university’s unwillingness to make clear that it will respect student press freedom in the future. Is the student newspaper really free from administrative pressure moving forward? We’re not sure — but we’ll certainly be watching.”

Frostburg State Director of News and Media Services Liz Medcalf referred Campus Reform to a statement from Nowaczyk to FIRE and SPLC: “There is no ongoing investigation into Ms. Conklin, no punishment was considered or is planned, and The Bottom Line was not directed to do anything; rather they were informed of the events in case they chose to take action, and, if so, were asked to provide the university administration with a confidential notice of any action. FSU has always and continues to be committed to freedom of speech, journalistic freedom and integrity, civility, and the policies and privacy rights of individuals in the campus community.”

Conklin told Campus Reform that she is “extremely concerned about FSU’s willingness to attack a student journalist.”

“I am equally concerned about their willingness to intimidate and pressure the independent student newspaper into investigating and disciplining their staff on behalf of the university,” she added. “They have infringed upon the journalistic freedom of the newspaper and those who write for it.”

In terms of policy changes to rectify the incident, Conklin believes that Frostburg State “should at least acknowledge the harm done here. They have yet to retract their baseless and false accusations against me, and they have yet to rescind their request to The Bottom Line.” 

“While formal investigations have concluded, the chilling effect of their intimidation tactics have left a scar on the relationship between the paper and the university,” said Conklin. “Pretending otherwise only serves to prove that FSU pursued this investigation for purely retaliatory reasons, void of any sincere concern for First Amendment rights.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @BenZeisloft