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Keeping censorship track record alive, Fordham bans RAs from speaking with media

Fordham’s claimed commitment to free speech gives student employees the right to speak to the media in a personal capacity. Seems Fordham cares more about good PR at any cost.
Fordham University in Manhattan

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Fordham is the latest in a string of universities to violate resident assistants’ rights by preventing them from speaking with the media — including student media — about their jobs. 

Fordham reportedly told RAs they may not speak with the media about matters related to residential life or about the university generally. FIRE wrote Fordham last month to urge it to amend its policies to respect student employees’ right to speak with the press as private citizens on matters of public concern.

This will be the fourth time FIRE has attempted to work with Fordham in the last three years to get administrators to make good on the expressive rights they promise students and faculty.

Fordham’s student handbook makes clear that “by its very nature, the University is a place where ideas and opinions are formulated and exchanged,” and that “each member of the University has a right to freely express their positions and to work for their acceptance whether they assent to or dissent from existing situations in the University or society.”

Fordham students cannot trust the promises the university makes.

Given this unambiguous promise, students will reasonably believe Fordham will respect its commitment and allow students to express themselves.

Unfortunately, they’ll be wrong.

Fordham can’t backtrack on its free expression promises. But it’s trying.

Fordham’s decision to prohibit RAs from speaking with the media about the university flies in the face of its free expression commitment — which protects students’ rights to speak as citizens on matters of public concern, including those implicating university life. Fordham may, of course, limit student employees’ speech on behalf of the university and on information made confidential by the law, but it simply does not have jurisdiction over all student employee speech about the university.

We wrote Fordham:

Authorities may regulate constitutionally protected speech based on its content—here, ResLife-related speech—if that regulation is the means least restrictive to expression to serve the authority’s compelling interest. Fordham does have a valid interest in ensuring RAs do not speak on the university’s behalf. However, this interest is not served when media policies are used to quell students’ speech as private citizens. Individuals, including students, who take employment roles at institutions committed to free expression do not relinquish their expressive rights “to comment on matters of public interest by virtue [of that employment].” Instead, they retain their right to speak as citizens on matters of public concern.

Fordham has not  responded to our letter or follow-up email reiterating our concerns. But that’s nothing new for the Bronx-area private school, whose level of intransigence on student rights issues is matched only by other bona fide bad actors in the campus speech space — schools like DePaul, Rensselaer Polytechnic, Syracuse, and Yale.

“Speak Up, But Not at Fordham”

FIRE first learned of Fordham’s impermissible press policies by an op-ed — “Speak Up, But Not at Fordham” — in The Fordham Ram criticizing the university’s record on free speech and its policies implicating resident assistants’ ability to speak with the media.

As the op-ed and our own case log make clear, Fordham is no stranger to free speech controversies. Its record of fixing its violations of free speech is even worse.

In 2016, FIRE criticized Fordham for refusing to recognize a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. The SJP chapter had to sue Fordham for recognition, which it secured in a lower court, but a New York appellate court reversed the ruling and the highest New York court  sided with Fordham.

As FIRE’s Will Creeley wrote in 2021 after Fordham rescinded SJP’s recognition, “Students, faculty, alumni, and the general public now know — if there were any doubt — that Fordham’s promises of free expression aren’t worth a dime.”

Members and supporters of Fordham Students for Justice in Palestine rallied in 2017 on the university's Manhattan campus to protest the Fordham administration's refusal to register SJP as a student organization.

‘Fordham should be ashamed’: Bitter outcome for pro-Palestinian group after university’s four-year fight to censor

Fordham previously proved its promises were only words on paper in 2020 when it banned student Austin Tong from campus and placed him on probation for posting a photo on Instagram of himself standing in his backyard with a legally-obtained gun to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre and celebrate his freedoms in America. Like SJP, Tong sued Fordham.

Fordham has also appeared on FIRE’s “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” list in 2017, 2018, and 2021, showing its unwavering commitment to censorship.

Fordham students cannot trust the promises the university makes. But we’ll keep trying to engage with administrators there and remain hopeful for change. As always, we’re happy to work with Fordham to improve its policies and explain its obligations as an institution that promises students free expression. 

In the meantime, we won’t stop calling out Fordham when it violates students’ expressive rights.

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 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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