The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Harvard’s student reporters asked ICE for comment. Immigration activists started boycotting the paper.

People walk along a sidewalk on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in July. (Steven Senne/AP)

Soon after the Harvard Crimson covered an “Abolish ICE” protest on campus last month, fierce blowback came from student activists, who slammed the paper for “cultural insensitivity” and accused it of “blatantly endangering undocumented students on campus.”

The Crimson’s alleged misstep? Reporters asked Immigration and Customs Enforcement for comment after the protest had ended.

That complaint has grown into the latest clash over campus speech, with hundreds signing a petition demanding that the newspaper stop talking to ICE altogether — a movement that has left professional journalists and media ethics experts around the country aghast.

In a letter published by Crimson editors Angela N. Fu and Kristine E. Guillaume on Tuesday, the paper defended its work, noting that asking for comment is a standard journalism practice.

“We seek to follow a commonly accepted set of journalistic standards, similar to those followed by professional news organizations big and small,” the editors said. “Foremost among those standards is the belief that every party named in a story has a right to comment or contest criticism leveled against them.”

The battle started with a Sept. 12 protest hosted by the student-led organization Act on a Dream, which advocates for undocumented students and opposes the Trump administration’s immigration policies. In its story the next day, the Crimson quoted student activists criticizing the federal immigration agency during the rally in front of the Memorial Church of Harvard University.

One line in the piece quickly drew ire from several student groups: “ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.”

Earlier this month, the paper’s editors met with leaders from Act on a Dream to explain why the reporters had reached out to ICE and reassure the students that the Crimson had not shared any personal information with the federal agency.

Days later, students from Act on a Dream and 10 other student groups urged their classmates to boycott the paper by refusing to return requests for comment.

“The Crimson relies on the trust of student organizations to accurately and effectively report on events happening on campus,” the groups said in their petition, which more than 670 people have signed as of early Wednesday. “They have violated that trust.”

The critics complained that undocumented students who spoke out at the protest might be targeted by ICE because of the Crimson’s reporting. Immigration advocates have been arrested by the federal agency, and groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights say some of those cases were in retaliation for vocal opposition to ICE, which the agency denies.

On social media, some students accused the Crimson of “doxing” undocumented students by asking ICE for a response to the protest. Critics said the paper had “called ICE on their fellow students” and demanded the paper “cut off any relationship with ICE.” The petition called the request for comment “virtually the same as tipping them off.”

The newspaper denies sharing any personal information with the federal agency.

“Let us be clear: In The Crimson’s communication with ICE’s media office, the reporters did not provide the names or immigration statuses of any individual at the protest,” the Crimson editors wrote Tuesday. “We did not give ICE forewarning of the protest, nor did we seek to interfere with the protest as it was occurring.”

Media ethics experts from the Student Press Law Center and the Society of Professional Journalists backed up the Crimson’s actions. SPJ’s Code of Ethics calls for reporters to “diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticisms or allegations of wrongdoing.”

The student groups who signed the petition did not immediately return a request for comment early Wednesday.

The dust-up has already had an effect on the Crimson’s coverage. When reporters reached out to the Harvard College Democrats for Warren for comment on last week’s Democratic debate, the group supporting Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) refused to talk to the student journalists, it said in a statement on Facebook.

The Crimson’s response Tuesday to the on-campus rebukes has been bolstered by professional journalists and journalism professors.

“This type of journalistic transparency and moral clarity, even in the face of criticism that may seem overbaked, is something all newsroom leaders can learn from,” said New York Times reporter Astead W. Herndon, sharing a link to the Crimson’s note on Twitter.

Denver Post senior enterprise editor Matt Sebastian called the controversy “wild.” Columbia Journalism School professor Bill Grueskin said the student paper’s editor “handled this perfectly” in the note to readers. Doug Fisher, a former Associated Press correspondent who teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina, called the activists’ criticism “a fundamental, basic misunderstanding or a deliberate refusal to understand what journalists do and how they do it.”

But some of the Crimson’s own staff have joined in the calls to stop contacting ICE for any story. Emily Romero, an associate editorial editor for the paper who says she is undocumented, tweeted her support of the protests and wrote that “it pains me to feel unsafe in the building I have devoted countless hours to.”

Another member of the editorial staff, Jessenia Class, wrote on Twitter that the paper’s decision to continue reaching out to the subjects of stories for comment was disappointing and “antithetical to our journalistic values of reporting with sensitivity.”

The student paper’s editors argued requesting comment from ICE makes their coverage of immigration issues more thorough, fair and balanced.

“At stake here, we believe, is one of the core tenets that defines America’s free and independent press,” Fu and Guillaume said Tuesday. “A world where news outlets categorically refuse to contact certain kinds of sources — a world where news outlets let third-party groups dictate the terms of their coverage — is a less informed, less accurate, and ultimately less democratic world.”