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Florida Atlantic student employees fear punishment for speaking to the press

Florida Atlantic University entrance sign

Sunshower Shots /

Back in 2021, Florida Atlantic University overhauled its troubling press practices after 17 months of advocacy from FIRE. FAU agreed to no longer require student journalists to route requests to interview university employees through administrators, and it added new policies upholding employees’ right to speak freely.

Unfortunately, this hard-fought victory for the student press has soured. FAU once again leaves student employees in fear of termination for speaking out — because its recent practices do not align with the language of the revised policies.

Student journalists at the University Press reported that when seeking to interview resident assistants for a story on mold in the dorms, RAs either refused to comment or did so only on a promise of anonymity, out of fear they would be reprimanded or even fired for speaking to reporters.

VICTORY: With FIRE’s help, Florida Atlantic University overhauls problematic media policies that inhibited student journalism

Press Release

These concerns contradict the policy improvements FAU made in 2021. At the time, FAU promised “to maintain an attitude of openness with the press” and that employees “should feel free to respond to questions posed by the media concerning their departments or areas of expertise.” However, commitments like these become empty promises — and worse, student rights violations — when supervisors give a contrary message to their employees. 

On March 29, FIRE’s Student Press Freedom Initiative wrote FAU voicing our disappointment with the inconsistency between its policies and practices and how that discrepancy undermines the rights of the student press and student employees. 

By effectively prohibiting RAs from speaking to the press out of fear of punishment, FAU enacts a prior restraint on its employees, which the Supreme Court once described as “the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.” 

As SPFI wrote in the letter

It is our concern that while FAU’s policies as written are speech-protective, there is a disconnect such that employees are receiving a message that, despite policy, they are not permitted to speak with journalists, including student journalists. Unfortunately, policies are only as good as their implementation, and restrictive practices can be just as pernicious as restrictive policies.

In our letter, we urged FAU to further revise its policies to ensure that university employees who read the policies will understand their right to speak freely to the press. We also asked FAU to train its supervisors, administrators, and other employees on both university policy and press rights to avoid further disconnect between the school’s policies and the practices. 

As UP reporters wrote, in calling for student employees to continue to speak out despite the threats, “Don’t let FAU continue to silence you.” FIRE and SPFI echo that sentiment and urge FAU to respect both its employees’ expressive rights and freedom of the press. We’ve worked with the university on this before, and we’d be happy to do so again. 

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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