On the heels of a tumultuous few months for free speech, we’re pleased to spread some good cheer this holiday season. Eastern Kentucky University, which for months held fast to a policy that burdened its resident advisers’ ability to speak with the media, recently had a change of heart.
The week before Thanksgiving, EKU committed not only to adding important context to its RA policy, but also to training its RAs on their rights regarding media interactions. We’re thankful that the university is taking steps to create a future where its students need not wonder whether speaking to the media will cost them their job — and where members of the student paper, The Eastern Progress, can confidently interview RAs in the course of their reporting.
This victory comes after a lengthy back-and-forth between FIRE’s Student Press Freedom Initiative and EKU. It was April when we first became aware of the university’s speech-prohibitive resident adviser position agreement, which indicated that RAs “should at no time give a statement to any media source” — even the student newspaper. We criticized this policy’s imposition of a prior restraint on speech, explaining that it would silence “both RAs’ expressive freedom and student journalists’ press freedom,” preventing the college community from being informed on issues of public concern.
EKU, a public school bound by the First Amendment, currently earns a “green light” rating from FIRE for its policies implicating student expression. We reminded it that maintaining this policy would be a negative mark on its generally positive record on student rights.
To our disappointment, EKU initially defended its policy, arguing that requiring RAs to submit all media requests to their supervisors is reasonable, in part, because RAs are entrusted with sensitive information which they must not divulge publicly. Tendentiously, it claimed that the policy would not prevent student employees from “speaking in their capacity as a private citizen on a matter of public concern” while casting doubt on whether RAs could discern how to exercise their First Amendment rights without violating their obligation to student privacy.
But upholding one’s employment obligation to keep confidential information confidential and expressing one’s personal views aren’t mutually exclusive. FIRE said as much in an Oct. 26 reply to EKU and a concurrent news article by FIRE Student Press Counsel Lindsie Rank, which stated:
[W]hile 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, student-employees’ employment status must not hinge on keeping publicly silent about matters that concern or interest them.
Fortunately, following our continued advocacy — including a take-action campaign through which free speech advocates asked EKU to revise the policy — the school has turned a corner. EKU’s latest response to FIRE states that it is drafting guidance that will clarify that “RAs are permitted to speak to the media in their personal capacity so long as they refrain from sharing information protected by law and/or University policy.” EKU also plans to “evaluate any language contained in the RA agreement for the 2024-2025 academic year that pertains to RA speech,” looking to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s First Amendment-compliant RA media policy for reference. Last but not least, in January 2024, EKU anticipates providing in-person instruction “to equip [RAs] with a better understanding of their rights and obligations with regard to media interactions.”
Needless to say, these developments are worth celebrating. FIRE helped UNC bring its own RA media policy in line with First Amendment standards, so if EKU follows its lead, we are optimistic about the future of its policy. We’re also happy to hear that EKU plans to take its student-employees’ education on the First Amendment into its own hands. This stands to empower RAs to express themselves without fear and signal to student-journalists that seeking comment from RAs is fair game.
Hopefully, these changes position free speech as a gift that keeps on giving at this green light school, driving a continuous cultural commitment to the value that underpins teaching, learning, and journalistic truth-seeking.
For our part, we stand ready to assist EKU — and any other school — in bringing its policies in line with these goals.