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Reports: RAs told not to speak to media as students return amidst coronavirus pandemic

As students begin to physically return to institutions conducting in-person classes this fall, troubling reports have emerged that some universities are directing student employees not to speak to reporters, including student journalists. Today, FIRE wrote to the University of Missouri and Louisiana State University seeking clarification about these reports and explaining that public institutions cannot prohibit student employees from speaking to the media entirely.

At the University of Missouri, anonymous RAs shared concerns with the Columbia Missourian about the university’s response to COVID-19. The Missourian granted the RAs anonymity because they had not been “authorized” to share their concerns with the media, and a “strict media policy for Residential Life employees” was “laid out” in a meeting this week. This restriction comes after RAs voiced concerns in the text-based chat of a Zoom call on Monday, after which the chat functions of further meetings was reportedly disabled.

Meanwhile, at Louisiana State University, a report on the resignation of three of the university’s 250 RAs — out of concern that LSU is not adequately prepared for COVID-19 — notes that “RAs are specifically forbidden from speaking to the media, including the on-campus newspaper, The Reveille.”

These reports are indirect, as they don’t share the precise language or policies as communicated to students. However, if accurately interpreted and described, the broad nature of these prohibitions violates the First Amendment rights of students. While a university can certainly require that RAs maintain the confidentiality of individual students, as well as designate who may give official statements on behalf of the university, it cannot categorically bar student employees from speaking to the media. 

At public universities, students and faculty members do not relinquish their First Amendment rights to comment as private citizens on matters of public concern, even when their perspective relates to their employment.

At public universities, students and faculty members do not relinquish their First Amendment rights to comment as private citizens on matters of public concern, even when their perspective relates to their employment. At private institutions, which are not bound by the First Amendment but often promise freedom of expression to their students and faculty members, broad gag orders on student-employee or faculty speech violate those promises of free expression. They likely also violate the National Labor Relations Act because they limit the ability of employees to discuss compensation and workplace safety.

Even if a university could lawfully prevent their RAs from saying anything about their institution’s responses to the pandemic, it’s a bad idea. RAs are not only essential employees concerned about the safety of their workplace and residents, but students understandably anxious about the safety of their home and friends. Limiting their ability to voice their concerns — whether through formal channels or through public discourse — imperils their ability to draw attention to public health concerns. That thwarts important feedback that university leaders might not otherwise hear and undermines the public’s trust in their institutions’ preparedness: If the policies do not work perfectly, the inevitable reports of enforced silence will give the perception that institutional leaders are not being forthcoming.

The pandemic has yielded a buffer crop of institutions limiting the speech of essential employees and students, fearful that their complaints might reflect poorly on institutional preparedness. Universities, where expressive rights should be robust and uninhibited, should take heed: Complaints may be embarrassing, but the appearance of enforced silence will not instill confidence.

Today, FIRE has written to Louisiana State University and to the University of Missouri requesting clarification and copies of documents concerning those policies. If, however, the reports are accurate, we call on LSU and Mizzou — and any other university with similar policies — to immediately revise those policies.

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 your rights are in jeopardy, get in touch with us:

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