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FIRE takes on faculty gag orders

By September 19, 2018

Say you’re a journalist working on a big story about a complex topic — obscure financial regulations, for example — and you need an expert opinion on the record. You call a professor in the economics department of your local public university, explain the issue, and ask what she thinks.

“That’s a great question, and I’ve written extensively on the subject,” says the professor. “But I’m afraid I can’t talk to you without permission.” The line goes dead. You stare at your phone in disbelief. What just happened? Since when do faculty members need permission to talk to reporters?

If this scene strikes you as outrageous, it should. One of the ways in which investing in public higher education benefits our society is by generating expertise to be shared with the public. After all, democracy requires an informed citizenry.

But recently, some public colleges have been pushing restrictive policies that sharply limit the ability of faculty members to speak with the media, effectively imposing a gag order on faculty members. In just the past few months, for example, FIRE has been contacted by professors at New York’s Nassau Community College and Texas’ Alamo Colleges District who are concerned about policies that would allow for them to be punished just for talking to reporters.

In response, FIRE has been pushing back.

Today, let’s start with the Alamo Colleges District, where a proposed policy governing “Communications” generated serious alarm amongst faculty. And no wonder: Under the policy as initially proposed, professors “must notify the [District Support Operations] Communications Office or the college PR office in advance” of speaking with a journalist.

Were the hypothetical scenario described above to take place in San Antonio, where Alamo Colleges District institutions educate nearly 60,000 students, the faculty member would have little choice but to hang up. And that’s if she took the call at all; under the proposed policy, professors “must also direct all media requests to the [District Support Operations] Communications Office or their college PR office.”

Because of these and other flaws, FIRE wrote the Chair of the ACD Board of Trustees earlier this month to express our deep concern:

Simply put, ACD has no authority to force faculty members to secure governmental permission or provide the institution with notice before speaking to the press or the general public about scholarly work, events, activities, expertise, accomplishments, or interests. ACD faculty cannot be forced to submit to the oversight of ACD administrators, for example, when communicating with “regional, state and federal officials,” when “interviewed by a reporter,” when “planning joint events or initiatives with external organizations,” or when responding to stories “with a potential for controversy,” “that might be considered negative or embarrassing,” or “that might produce follow-up questions from the media.” Because the policy dictates otherwise, it is at odds with the First Amendment and must be revised immediately.

The message seems to have been received. An attorney for the Alamo Colleges District wrote us back the next week, informing us that the proposed policy “was not adopted or approved at the meeting.” The Ranger, a student publication at San Antonio College, confirmed this week that the policy was pulled for further review, and its editors shared their view that requiring faculty to “check with PR before media interviews . . . is not a form of training; it is a method of control.” For now, it’s good news for faculty that the policy has been stalled, and we’ll watch closely for further developments from deep in the heart of Texas.

Unfortunately, New York’s Nassau Community College took much longer to respond to FIRE’s concerns about their equally problematic media relations policy, and the situation remains unsettled. We’ll have more on that story here shortly, so stay tuned.