FIRE complains to district about proposed communication policy

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The education rights group cites violations of First Amendment.

By Kimberly Caballero

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education emailed and sent express mail an eight-page letter to the Alamo Colleges board of trustees and presidents expressing opposition to a proposed communications policy.

The C.4.1 (Policy) Communications proposal restricts communication between district employees and all media, including student media.
The lengthy complaint focused on violations to employees’ First Amendment rights.

FIRE is a “nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses,” the email states.

The policy requires employees to receive approval from a college’s public relations department before speaking to any media, regardless of the topic.

According to the policy, its purpose is to “establish policy, procedures and guidelines for public communication between Alamo Colleges District officials, employees, news media representatives and others requiring information concerning district issues, programs, projects, services and activities.”

In two previous Ranger articles, faculty expressed concern over the policy.

Tony Villanueva, president of Palo Alto’s American Association of University Professors, said “Media should have access to students and faculty without interference from policies that inhibit appropriate communication,” according to an Aug. 28 Ranger article.

Math Professor Gerald Busald said, “The main thing is: I don’t want faculty to be not able to give their expertise to the media — that’s bad for the district, in my opinion,” according to a Sept. 4 Ranger article.

The FIRE letter states, “If adopted, the policy will violate ACD’s binding legal obligations under the First Amendment by restricting faculty members’ ability to communicate with the press and the general public on matters of public concern.”

The email continues addressing “specific policy provisions of C.4.1 that would unlawfully infringe upon the First Amendment rights of ACD faculty.”

One of the policy provisions FIRE constitutes as infringing is the provision under “Contact with the Media and Student Media.”

The provision states “Employees must also direct all media requests to the DSO Communications Office or their college PR office.”

The email states “By effectively requiring faculty members to obtain administrative approval prior to speaking to the media, government figures, or external organizations, ACD has imposed a prior restraint on faculty speech.”

In the email, FIRE references 391 U.S. at 572, Id. at 572-573: “Even if the faculty expression at issue is critical of ACD, it is protected if it involves a matter of public concern and can ‘neither (be) shown nor can be presumed to have in any way either impeded the teacher’s proper performance of his daily duties in the classroom or to have interfered with the regular operation of the school generally.’

FIRE continues, “If faculty do not communicate that they are speaking on behalf of ACD or its constituent colleges, they retain the right to disclose their experience and position as part of their commentary on matters of public concern.”

Under the policy, if an Alamo Colleges employee does not obtain approval from public relations to speak with media, the employee is not allowed to use a district title, time or equipment.

The board’s Policy and Long-Range Planning Committee proposed the policy at its Aug. 14 meeting.

It was scheduled to be listed on the regular board meeting agenda at the Aug. 21 meeting, but Kristi Wyatt, associate vice chancellor of communications and engagement, “confirmed Aug. 16 she and (the) legal (office) withdrew the policy for further review and possible modifications,” according to an Aug. 28 Ranger article.

The policy is expected to be ready for the board or a committee as early as Oct. 9.

The proposed communications policy can be read here.

The letter FIRE sent to the board of trustees can be read here.


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