Mercer’s Human Resources department has emailed all college faculty and staff a link to a mandatory online compliance training and has required completion by May 14. The training includes information on Title IX and other important and relevant policies, but one point in the first module, on slide 22 of 84 states that “employees should not talk to the press without explicit consent from the school.”
The slide does not say “employees should not speak on behalf of the college to the press without consent from the school,” it simply states they should not speak to the press, period. The policy requires employees to surrender their First Amendment rights, it chills free speech and is a threat to The VOICE and to the college’s journalism and New Media programs.
We shared a picture of the slide with Frank Lomonte, an experienced First Amendment lawyer and the Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center, and asked for his reaction. He said: “I think the answer is it’s pretty illegal…that raises very serious First Amendment issues.”
The VOICE then reached out to Human Resources at Mercer, the department that had supplied the training materials to faculty, but neither the manager nor the executive director agreed to be interviewed and instead referred The VOICE to Jim Gardner, the college’s director Public Relations.
Gardner defended the policy saying, “It’s standard operating procedure for any large organization, whether it’s for a Fortune 500 company, a community college or a school district.”
Obviously private companies and public institutions are not the same. Private companies do not have responsibilities like providing transparency through open public records laws or filing annual crime reports like we do.
As LoMonte pointed out, a complete blanket policy against speaking to the press would “also be illegal at Fortune 500 companies.” Private companies can ask employees to sign contracts that preclude them from providing proprietary data to outside entities and so on, and colleges can require that only Public Relations representatives speak to the press on behalf of the college, but that’s not what the material in Mercer’s training says.
Because Mercer’s policy is so broad-reaching, with zero clarification or exceptions given, and all employees of the college are required to read it and demonstrate their commitment to it by completing the online training, it amounts to censorship where The VOICE is concerned. We will end up writing articles that are filled with “no comments” and anonymous sources. It has the potential to turn The VOICE into a shoddy publication like TMZ.
We already have an article in this issue where we had to use an anonymous quote from a faculty member about the contract negotiations because the person was scared to go on the record. It’s a troubling experience for us as students interviewing someone who is supposed to educate us and realizing they are too scared to open their mouths. The college’s efforts to intimidate employees are already working.
The one administrator we found at Mercer who did seem to see the First Amendment problem with the policy was Dean of Students Dr. Diane Campbell who told The VOICE, “Probably [that point] should be clearer…If I wanted to talk to the press, if there was some reason I needed to, constitutionally the college can’t say you that can’t talk to the press.” She added, “I think the college has a responsibility to know when faculty and staff are talking to the press. But in terms of our constitutional rights, it’s not like we can say you can’t talk to anybody.”
LoMonte agrees it’s the lack of clarity that poses the real problem. “I think anybody who sees that training will be taking that as mandatory…if they had used the term ‘recommend’ or ‘advise’ then that’s different.”
The VOICE spoke to two faculty union members to get their reaction to the policy in the compliance training materials.
English Professor Dr. Edward Carmien reacted to the no talking to the press policy saying, “Speaking as a faculty member, I think it’s outrageous that this should be an item on this slide and that we’re expected to basically agree to this as a part of this training. Nothing that I saw in the description of this training would have led me to believe that these details would be so broad-reaching into what I think are fundamental First Amendment rights.” He added, “I cannot imagine completing this training now that I’ve been made aware that this is here.”
Math Professor Arthur Schwartz was similarly offended. He told The VOICE, “I’ll talk to the press anytime I want. It’s the freedom of press.”
As to why he thinks the college would include such a policy in their training Prof. Schwartz said, “[Administration] would like to have total control before people go to the press. I know that they would like that…and I would like a Lamborghini…but I’m not getting a Lamborghini and they’re not going to intimidate people to what they say and what they’re not going to say.”
Earlier this month The VOICE was invited by the college president to attend the Board of Trustees meeting to be recognized for winning eight New Jersey Collegiate Press Association awards this year. We appreciated the invitation and were sorry that because all of us work at that time no one could attend, but we’ve since discovered that the faculty training was sent out just two days before we were asked to come be acknowledged for our work. On one hand the college is publicly supporting us and at the next moment undermining our ability to be reporters. If the college wants to celebrate our victories they must allow us the ability to continue our work, which we cannot do if no one will speak to us.
The college owes faculty an apology and should revise their policy and then revise the training materials before sending them back out to be completed. Meantime The VOICE will carry on trying to keep people informed, we will continue encouraging students to be engaged in the life of our college, and we hope that faculty and staff will acknowledge they can always speak to us, not on behalf of the college, but on behalf of themselves as employees and individuals.