In line with its historic support of free expression and its “green light” rating for speech-protective policies, the University of Virginia will revise its resident advisor agreement to make sure RAs understand that they are permitted to speak to the media.
FIRE wrote to UVA on Sept. 11 because, based on language in UVA’s previous RA agreement, RAs believed they were barred from speaking to the media. The language in question indicated that “[a]ny inquiries by the press or other media outlets should be referred to the Chair(s),” creating uncertainty among RAs about their ability to speak to the press.
The previous policy led some RAs to tell student newspaper The Daily Cavalier that they had to interview anonymously to avoid violating policy, and led other RAs to anonymously pen a letter to administrators “due to the blanket restrictions surrounding media coverage.” This type of blanket prohibition would violate the First Amendment.
Public colleges and universities are free to restrict student employees — including RAs — from conducting media interviews on behalf of the institution, but cannot restrict student employees from speaking to the media as private citizens.
However, as UVA explained in its response to our letter, it has “for many years” been its position that RAs may freely speak to the media “in ‘a situation in which [the RA] will not be representing the Resident Staff program, but sharing [his or her] personal views.’”
To make policy better reflect this longstanding pro-speech position, UVA will revise its RA agreement to state, “Individual Resident Staff members may speak to the media or public in their individual capacities, making clear they are not speaking on behalf of or for the program.”
As we explained in our letter, public colleges and universities are free to restrict student employees — including RAs — from conducting media interviews on behalf of the institution, but cannot restrict student employees from speaking to the media as private citizens, even when the subject of the interview may be related to their work.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and other harrowing events taking place, this type of restrictive policy has become part of public conversation, as RAs and other employees raise concerns that media policies prevent them from effectively informing the public about concerns with campus safety, particularly when those concerns go unheeded by campus administrators.
We are glad to see UVA resolve the confusion among its students by revising its RA agreement to make clear that RAs are free to speak to the media in their personal capacities.
You can read UVA’s full response to FIRE’s letter here:FIRE-HRL-response-09-18-2020