Brandeis Backs Down on New Free Speech Issue

By on February 2, 2009

"You are all paid employees of the Brandeis University Office of Development and Alumni Relations. It is in incredibly poor taste for you to write anything that can be perceived as slanderous or offensive about the University. Several members of the Development Staff, including myself, are going through facebook, blogs, boston.com, and online petitions."

So read last Tuesday’s e-mail from Matthew Magida, Annual Giving Officer at Brandeis. According to Ariel Wittenberg for The Brandeis Hoot, the e-mail continued, "If I see you have written anything (positive or negative) about the Rose Art Museum [which is going to be closed, with its art to be sold], you will be placed on Probation immediately." This restriction on speech applied to Brandeis students as well as regular staff.

According to Wittenberg’s excellent reporting, "Phone-a-thon employees were called into an emergency meeting at 8 p.m. Wednesday night shortly after an article was posted on The Hoot’s website," and "Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations Mark Abelman assured his employees that they were, in fact allowed to comment on the Rose Art Museum so long as they were not at work."

One student quoted in the Hoot got the personal angle on this outrage just right:

"I feel like I have to [choose] between earning money and caring for the university. How can I not express my opinions?"

How did this happen? According to reports, higher-ups have said it was just "a mistake," "just an error."

The Hoot also asked David Nathan, Director of Development Communications, about monitoring of student workers and found:

While the Office of Development and Alumni Relations does routinely monitor blogs and facebook, Nathan said it is more to "[gauge] alumni sentiment, not to identify phone-a-thon workers and punish them."

I’m not sure who really believes this anymore. Besides, according to this blogger’s anecdote, Nathan himself contacted the blogger and demanded that he take down a post embarrassing the university.

I can understand why tensions are high all over campus and especially in the development office at Brandeis. But really, these are steps in the wrong direction. They are more evidence of why FIRE believes that students should avoid Brandeis when they are considering which college to attend. The state of rights on campus is too precarious for a place that ought to be a free marketplace of ideas. Frankly, I don’t know how much more students and faculty members can take.

Schools: Brandeis University