Last month, as many universities and colleges across the country prepared for an influx of students to campus for the fall semester, residential advisors from at least two universities reported that their institutions had directed them not to speak to the press. As FIRE explained in letters to the University of Missouri and Louisiana State University, these troubling reports raised the prospect that these public universities were violating the First Amendment rights of their students by subjecting RAs to broad gag orders.
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.”
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.
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.
To its credit, the University of Missouri responded swiftly to FIRE’s inquiry, explaining that its policies do not impose a “blanket prohibition against speaking to the media,” and pledging to clarify any misconceptions with their staff:
Residential Life has a media protocol (copy attached) in its emergency manual for student staff which instructs student employees on how to direct media inquiries; it does not prohibit students from speaking in their personal capacities. Student employees will not be punished for speaking as private citizens on matters of public concern and this point is being clarified with any of our staff who may have misunderstood the university policy.
The University of Missouri also shared the “Residential Life media protocol” with us. That policy is imperfect, directing RAs to, “[w]hen contacted by the media, refer reporters to” university administrators and suggesting that the RAs “indicate that any contact with the media or official comment from Residential Life is only done by” those administrators. Because the policy does not clarify that RAs are not barred from speaking in their personal capacity (as opposed to speaking on behalf of the university), it is easy to see why RAs might be left with the impression that the university prohibits them from speaking to the media at all.Emergency-Manual-for-Student-Staff-2020-002-dragged
However, that uncertainty can be rectified by clarifying the policy’s scope to RAs now, which the university says it will do, and by revising the policy’s language in the near future.
Louisiana State University, on the other hand, did not bother to defend or clarify their policy. LSU did not respond to our letter at all, responding only to a public records request for their media policy by providing a copy of LSU’s Residential Life media policy.
How is it? Not great!
The policy gestures at the possibility that a staff member’s comments might be interpreted as speaking on behalf of the university, rather than as offering their personal views. However, it does so not to warn staff members to be careful, but to dissuade them from talking at all. The policy goes on to note:
If you decide to speak with a reporter regarding a non-emergency situation, it is important to remember that you are speaking in your role as a staff member of the Department of Residential Life. This places different responsibilities on you than if you were only a resident. Be sure to consider the following:
Your [sic] represent LSU. Even though you may be discussing your own experiences, you will be identified as an LSU staff member, so you are representing the university. This is not an appropriate time to air your disagreements with Residential Life. Any such disagreements should be discussed with the Residential Life staff followed by appropriate avenues of appeal on campus if necessary.
That leaves no room for RAs to say anything unflattering about LSU’s policies, procedures, or conduct, even if it has no bearing on the university’s interests in protecting something — like student privacy or confidential information — other than its reputation. That necessarily inhibits students from sharing their concerns or viewpoints (including those that administrators may not be receptive to hearing) with fellow students or the public.
This aversion to transparency is not a byproduct of the pandemic. The importance of transparency and the ability of essential workers (like RAs) to publicly share their concerns has been thrown into starker relief by the pandemic, but these policies have existed for years — LSU’s, for example, dates back to 2012. They only now seem more prone to abuse when the institutions that promulgate them are fending off public criticism.
Gallant — here, embodied by Mizzou — swiftly clarifies confusion among students about their rights in an anxious time. Goofus — LSU — ignores RAs resigning over their concerns and sticks to policies telling them not to “air their disagreements” with the university.
Universities like LSU should take steps to immediately rescind policies that suggest to RAs that they cannot share their views about their homes and workplaces. The continued maintenance of these policies is an affront to the First Amendment and only frustrates their ability to gain the confidence of the public and students.