Clemson University Clarifies Ban on Freely Contacting Public Officials after FIRE Intervenes

By January 21, 2010

After Clemson University told faculty members and all other employees that they could not contact public officials without prior arrangement by and notification of Clemson officials, FIRE wrote the public university a letter pointing out that this misguided regulation violated individuals’ First Amendment right to petition public officials. Following receipt of FIRE’s letter, the university has provided a clarification of the policy. Clemson has now made clear that individuals are free to contact public officials when they are not on university business, and signaled that faculty members’ contacts with public officials as part of their academic work are not subject to the policy’s requirements.

The original e-mail, sent on January 12, 2010, was sent by Clemson University Media Relations. It stated:

Any meeting between a Clemson University administrator, faculty or staff member and members of Congress or their staff must be arranged by the director of federal relations.

Meetings between administrators, faculty or staff and federal agency directors or staff must be reported to the director of federal relations. [Emphasis in original.]

Similar requirements were stated with regard to contacting state-level officials.

After a Clemson faculty member notified FIRE, we wrote to Clemson University President James F. Barker on January 15. We pointed out not only that the e-mail misrepresented Clemson policy, but also that the official policy appeared to violate the academic freedom of professors:

This e-mail misrepresents [...] the "Contacting Public Officials" policy at http://www.clemson.edu/governmentalaffairs/contactingpo.html. That policy correctly acknowledges the First Amendment rights of Clemson employees when they act outside of their professional responsibilities:

Clemson University acknowledges that state employees are entitled to engage in political activities during their own time and provided that no Clemson University or South Carolina public resources are used. This includes the right to meet with and/or communicate with public officials, provided such contact is clearly in their personal capacity and not as part of their public employment.

The Media Relations e-mail, however, fails to include this acknowledgement and thus has the effect of chilling personal contacts between, for instance, a faculty member and a public official.

Moreover, the e-mail (and, on its face, the official policy) violates the academic freedom of faculty members whose academic work involves contact with public officials, such as when political science professors engage in research involving active public officials. Although such Clemson faculty members’ academic work is performed using the university’s resources, it is unacceptable, under any proper understanding of academic freedom, to demand that "any meeting" between them and public officials must be both arranged by and reported to university administrators.

We asked for a response by January 29, but fortunately, Clemson has already clarified the policy. In another e-mail to all faculty members and other employees yesterday, Clemson University Media Relations wrote:

We should have made it more clear that these policies [the one at issue and another one regarding invitations to public officials to speak on campus] do not apply to personal contacts as a private citizen — only to those made in your capacity as an employee of Clemson University on behalf of the university.

[...]

  • If you are contacting public officials as a private citizen, these policies do not apply.
  • If you are contacting public officials as a member of an organization or association, these policies do not apply.
  • If you are called to testify before a legislative committee or other public body as a representative of Clemson University, notify the Office of Governmental Affairs. If you are participating in a role outside of your employment at Clemson University, clarify who you are officially representing and in what capacity you are appearing.
  • If you are conducting research at Clemson University for which federal funding is being sought or provided and Clemson’s director of federal relations is engaged in the process, every meeting between the researcher/university and the funding agency must be reported to the Office of Governmental Affairs.

Thus, it appears that most academic research that involves contact with public officials—namely, research in which Clemson’s director of federal relations has no role—will be able to proceed unimpeded by the policy. Furthermore, all contacts made by faculty members and other employees outside of university business remain free and not subject to the policy, just as the First Amendment requires—so long as it is clear that the contact is not to be mistaken for university business.

FIRE congratulates Clemson for quickly correcting its error.

Schools: Clemson University Cases: Clemson University: Restrictions on Contacting Public Officials