After the introduction of the new alcohol policy on campus, many community coordinators and community advisors refused to speak to the media, citing their reason as “I can’t, I’m a CC/CA.”
“When an employer tells young people they can’t speak there is a chilling factor, meaning we can fire you,” said Jerry Dunklee, Southern journalism professor and member of the Society of Professional Journalists. “That powerful threat chills the First Amendment rights.”
The First Amendment limits government from making laws that infringe on the right to free speech. Community coordinators and community advisors at Southern are public employees and are therefore protected. They have “protection from retaliation for exercising certain First Amendment rights,” according to Workplace Fairness, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing information free of legal jargon to workers and advocates of workers’ rights.
According to the site, courts have limited such speech to matters of “public concern.” Dunklee said he would argue anything the Residence Life employees say is a matter of public concern, while not everyone would agree.
Angela Todaro, director of Residence Life, said the department does not have a policy restricting the opinions of employees. However, the department was asked to direct all members of the media asking about the alcohol policy to contact public affairs. In the past, Todaro said some employees have made public statements she did not feel were accurate.
“Their title has been attached in an article so it looks like they’re speaking on behalf of the department and the reality is many don’t have the knowledge to speak on behalf of the department,” said Todaro. “If a remark is made in the media and it does not reflect the department in terms of policy, I do have a responsibility to address it with the staff member but I do not restrict their opinions.”
An undergraduate who works in a Southern dormitory for Residence Life expressed their concern for the way in which those who speak out are addressed. The student wished to remain anonymous.
“I understand that they have to address some things, like if a CC was to misquote something, but somehow the way they send out the e-mails afterwards is intimidating and you’re always concerned for your job,” said the source. “And because a lot of us use this to pay for school it can be really hard to be reprimanded because you don’t know what’s going to happen to you.”
The source said e-mails often include instructions to double check facts and go through their hall director when speaking to the media.
Under Connecticut Public Act 83-578 Chapter 557 Sec. 31-51q, employers are liable for damages caused by “such discipline or discharge, including punitive damages.” The act states employers who subject employees to “discipline or discharge” for exercising their First Amendment rights must be held accountable.
“In my time here we’ve never terminated a staff member for speaking to the media. We’ve followed up with staff members who have given opinions to the media who don’t fully reflect the ideas of the department,” said Todaro. “Three years ago was the last example I can think of.”
Todaro said she could not recall the details from the last example.
In the case of the alcohol policy, employees were told not to comment on the controversial issue.
“Officials often fear a complete public discussion of their policies,” said Dunklee. “They often say ‘we need to speak with one voice.’ The problem is, however, we don’t have one voice and the First Amendment gives us all the right to use our voices.”
Todaro said the entire department of Residence Life was told to pass the questions to Public Affairs. Dunklee said what constitutes a matter of public concern can “get a little hairy.” According to Workplace Fairness, the Supreme Court has conceded the right to speak is an important right because government employees are often in the best position to witness deficiencies in policy.
The organization contends the importance of making these deficiencies open to the public so improvements can be debated.
Todaro said the department is open to speaking to the media and she is happy to help set up interviews with her staff.
“If the requests come from me, let’s say you really want to speak to staff about desk policy, if you make the request to me I can make the request to the staff. If they’re then interested in talking to Southern News they can,” said Todaro. “On most campuses that’s kind of how it’s done.”
Through this technique, Jason Rizk, a community coordinator, was identified as a source. Rizk said he was hired this past year by Residence Life and has been encouraged by Todaro to speak to the media about his job and considers it great publicity for the department.
“If there is something that happens, an incident or not, and any sort of newspaper comes in we’re asked not to comment on it obviously because there is information we know that has to be kept confidential.”
Rizk said he was told by Todaro he has the option whether to give his personal opinions to the media.
Rizk said when the department suggests they don’t speak, it is because they are only students, just happen to have a little more responsibility than others. Rizk said bigger news organizations “may come in and take advantage of us and put us in a bad position.”
The anonymous source said, however, they do feel intimidated when speaking to the media, and also feel nervous about what is going to get back to their boss.
The Athletic Department suggests similar process to journalists when setting up interviews. Michael Kobylanski, associate director of athletics/communications, said the department encourages journalists to reach out to his office to set up interviews with athletes, but neither department mandates this.
Kobylanski said the main goal is to educate Southern’s student athletes on the function of the office and serve as a “conduit for journalists.” Kobylanski said the department’s athletes are told they can speak to anybody they want at any time but hope the student athlete utilizes their services. Learning how to address the media is included in training of Residence Life employees.
“I do talk about these things in training,” said Todaro. “I talk with them a little about certain kinds of policy related question or opinion related questions to consider as they make decisions about speaking to the media.”
The anonymous source said they have been reprimanded and made to feel bad about themselves after being addressed. The source said it can be difficult to live and work in the same place.
“It’s scary any time your boss reprimands you, let alone when it is where you live. It makes things hard because I can’t act like any other student. I can’t have parties in my room because where I live has to be where I work so I constantly have to be a role model to my residents,” said the source. “That’s part of why I can’t sit there and vent about my job, I have to be careful what I say about what and who I say it to. I can’t go down the hall and talk to a resident about what happened in the same way I can’t speak to the media.”