The Student Press Law Center sent a letter to The University of Alabama Thursday afternoon expressing concern over the University’s new media guidelines for sorority recruitment, saying they amount to a “gag order” that violates First Amendment rights. Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said in the letter that the University’s guidelines represent a “profoundly misguided public relations strategy that is guaranteed to backfire.”
Although the University can at times regulate its employees’ speech, LoMonte wrote, there is little legal authority addressing a college’s ability to prevent students from speaking to media outlets, “because to [the SPLC’s] knowledge no college has been audacious enough to try.”
LoMonte asked the University to immediately make it clear that students are free to to speak to journalists and journalists are free to contact students to gauge their willingness to speak.
“It cannot go unremarked that the disclosures published in last year’s Crimson White article, ‘The Final Barrier,’ came about because members of Greek organizations broke ranks and did consent to speak with the news media about the outrages they witnessed, at times against the wishes of those supervising their organizations,” LoMonte said in the letter.
Even if an individual sorority wished to enforce a “no-interview” rule, he said, the University should not enforce a policy meant to ensure whistleblowers do not come forward.
“The public has an interest in knowing whether anything has been learned from the events of the last year,” he said. “Canned quotes from a spokesperson who is not in the room where decisions are made will do nothing to reassure the public.”
The letter was sent to Karen Baldwin, vice president for University Advancement. Baldwin is out of her office until Monday and was unavailable for comment.
Cathy Andreen, director of media relations, said the University is not trying to prevent students from speaking to news media.
“The University of Alabama is not attempting to restrict communications between news media and students,” Andreen said. “The demanding schedule of the recruitment period makes it difficult for staff and students who are participating to speak to media. As a result, University Relations will not be able to schedule interviews during the recruitment period. As always, reporters are free to solicit interviews and information from anyone they want to contact. And, University Relations will continue to respond to media questions, as we have throughout the week.”
The letter is available in its entirety below.
SPLC letter of concern, August 14, 2014
Edited at 10:50 p.m. Thursday, August 14, to include a response from Cathy Andreen, director of media relations.