Naming Rights

When University of Colorado president Elizabeth "Betsy" Hoffman put CU head football coach Gary Barnett on paid administrative leave on February 18, she criticized him for making insensitive remarks about once-and-future kicker Katie Hnida -- and there's no doubt he'd done just that. Barnett's statement the previous day that, from a skills perspective, Hnida was not only "a girl, she was terrible" hardly qualified as chivalrous, given that she'd just opened up to Sports Illustrated scribe and CU grad Rick Reilly about sexual harassment and rape at the hands of Boulder gridiron grunts.

Yet Hoffman and CU have hardly specialized in compassion when it comes to Lisa Simpson, one of three women suing the university for a December 2001 recruiting party at which Simpson says she was raped. Late in 2002, Simpson's attorneys with the Boulder firm of Hutchinson, Black & Cook filed a civil complaint in state court without using their client's name. Shortly thereafter, CU's lawyers moved the matter to federal court and immediately petitioned to lift Simpson's cloak of anonymity -- an obvious intimidation tactic. Only after months of wrangling did Simpson make her name public, declaring in a May 2003 statement published in the Boulder Daily Camera, "I now understand that having been raped is not something to be ashamed of."

But the Camera didn't wait for this announcement to use Simpson's name. It first saw print on December 11, 2002, due to the paper's long-held policy of publishing the names of individuals involved in civil suits. The following May, writing about Colleen Conant, the paper's editor at the time, Camera columnist Clint Talbott said, "I don't believe Conant made this decision lightly. I do believe she was wrong."

Mark Andresen
Mark Andresen

Simpson agreed. Through her spokeswoman, Lisa Simon, she declined an interview request from Westword, but in January testimony before the Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of bills designed to afford sexual-assault victims greater privacy protection, she criticized the Camera by name. The only thing that made press coverage of the 2001 party tolerable was knowing "that no one other than the people close to me actually knew it was me," she said. "And then one day I woke up and I received a call from my attorney saying that the Boulder Daily Camera printed my name." Her reaction? "It was like being raped all over again. They did not ask me if they could share my identity with the world. They did not think that it was wrong to take away my anonymity without my permission. They gave me no choice; I had no chance to say no. They took something away from me that I was not ready to give."

These remarks -- which the Camera, to its credit, partially excerpted in a January 29 article -- demonstrate how difficult it is to figure out the rules of the name game. Consider the variety of approaches taken to reports about one of the other women suing CU. Her attorney, Peggy Jessel, declined to comment for this column, but she did ask that yours truly refrain from naming her client -- a request that I've granted. The Camera, the Colorado Daily, the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post all received identical entreaties from Jessel earlier this month, and the Greeley Tribune heard a comparable plea from Simpson's representatives. The papers' reactions were as varied as the accusations against CU.

As the multitude of media responses indicates, there's little consensus on how to handle the anonymity issue. "I think newspapers are trying to do the right thing," says Bronson Hilliard, the Daily's managing editor. In this case, however, they defined "the right thing" in different ways.

The discussion about names has become more urgent since a sexual-assault allegation against basketballer Kobe Bryant surfaced last year. The Eagle County woman who says Bryant raped her hasn't been identified in the mainstream media, but syndicated radio host Tom Leykis named her on his program, asserting that it was unfair for Bryant to be held up to public scrutiny when the woman was shielded.

Leykis's motivations weren't lofty; he's a simple-minded Kobe booster. Still, his philosophy dovetails with that of Geneva Overholser, onetime editor of the Des Moines Register, who's become journalism's leading advocate for identifying crime victims. In a column for the Poynter Institute titled "Name the Accuser and the Accused," Overholser lays out her position. She believes "naming names is an essential part of the commitment to accuracy, credibility and fairness.... Openness serves society as a whole. It serves enlightenment and understanding and progress. And it serves the criminal justice system."

Overholser acknowledges that "this practice frequently brings pain to individuals; truth-telling does have its victims." The accuracy of this admission has been borne out by coverage of the CU recruiting scandal. One can only imagine how Simpson would have felt had she been listening to talk-show host Peter Boyles's show earlier this month, when he discussed a deposition claiming that during the 2001 party, she had the penises of two men in her mouth simultaneously. Hnida, a local media darling in the late '90s due to her status as field-goal kicker and homecoming queen at Chatfield High School, has also come in for a ton of abuse. CU apologists such as KOA's Dave Logan and The Fan's Lou From Littleton have regularly followed de rigueur comments about rape being bad with steady support for coach Barnett and ignorant insinuations about the kicker's determination not to press charges.

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