At Eastern Kentucky University, resident advisers are prohibited from speaking to reporters — no matter the subject of their interviews, no matter the perspective they share. EKU’s reason for this unconstitutional gag order? The First Amendment is too “difficult” for “young, student employee[s]” to understand.
These young employees are the same people the university entrusts with “crisis management,” “safety and security,” “academic resources,” and “leadership” over residents in campus dormitories. Surely, if EKU feels confident that RAs can handle life-and-death security matters, it must also recognize that, with minimal training, RAs can understand their own expressive freedoms.
But The Eastern Progress, EKU’s editorially independent student newspaper, has spent the better part of the last year — with the help of FIRE’s Student Press Freedom Initiative — battling this unconstitutional gag order. The policy represents a unique threat to press freedom at EKU because it prevents Eastern Progress from covering stories that affect RAs, thereby inhibiting the public’s right to know about the goings-on at this public university.
We’re simply asking the university to uphold its constitutional obligations by allowing its employees to speak publicly as individual citizens on subjects of public concern.
As SPFI explained today in our second letter to EKU, we aren’t asking the school to give RAs free reign to divulge confidential student information, or even to speak on behalf of the university or its housing department. Instead, we’re simply asking the university to uphold its constitutional obligations by allowing its employees to speak publicly as individual citizens on subjects of public concern.
So while an RA can be barred from giving a statement to a journalist that, for example, announces the university’s position on alcohol in dorms or reveals private information about a student caught violating that policy, that same RA can’t be barred from expressing their own opinion about the policy. In short, EKU RAs, like other public employees, do not give up their personal First Amendment rights just because they work at the university. Unlike EKU, we simply don’t think that’s too complicated a distinction for these capable young adults to understand.
Our conviction that student employees can, in fact, be trusted with their own constitutional rights is born out at other universities. For example, FIRE successfully worked with UNC in 2020 to revise its RA media policy to allow RAs to speak to reporters in their individual capacities, so long as they don’t share anything confidential. Similar policies have been implemented at the University of Virginia, Montclair State University, and the University of Missouri.
Unless EKU expects us to believe its students are of a lower caliber than those at UNC, UVA, Montclair, and Mizzou, it can surely adopt a similarly speech-friendly policy. This also happens to be what the Constitution requires.
Help us make the case to EKU. With just a few clicks, you can tell university leaders that RA’s entrusted with safeguarding their peers’ rights, can surely manage their own.
We're joined by First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza and British journalist Brendan O'Neill to discuss the state of free speech in the United States and Europe. Randazza is a First Amendment attorney and the managing partner at Randazza...