“I have some thoughts, and anonymous means that I don’t rock the boat,” a senior RA said.
‘Don’t talk to the media’
UNC RAs are considered part-time student employees. They receive a stipend of about $5,000 per academic year with a discounted rate for their room.
On Sept. 10, student staff members were notified that they would be terminated at the end of October. When UNC closed its residence halls in spring 2020, student staff received an email stating they would be terminated effective April 1. Carolina Housing later clarified that they would receive paid administrative leave.
The Supreme Court ruled in the 2006 case of Garcetti v. Ceballos that the speech of public employees is protected under the First Amendment — if it is engaged in as a private citizen.
This means that RAs can talk about their experiences as long as it is not on behalf of Carolina Housing or the University, Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, said.
“If a policy makes crystal-clear that you're still allowed to talk to the media in your personal individual capacity, then it's probably fine,” LoMonte said. “But this policy doesn't say that and I think any reasonable employee reading it would think that they're not free to give interviews at all.”
One RA said they had to speak with their supervisor after giving an interview for The Daily Tar Heel and not receiving prior approval. They said they were told the media relations policy was in place to prevent legal or financial consequences for staff members as a result of interviews.
The RA said they couldn’t recall if this was explained in training for student staff members.
“They just say, ‘Here’s the media policy — don’t talk to the media,’” they said. “And so everybody’s kind of under the impression that, ‘Oh okay, so you have this here to censor us basically.’”
In response to interview requests for a previous DTH story, multiple student staff members declined, responding that they wanted to protect their employment status.
Like them, another RA, who said they had to speak with their supervisor after an unapproved interview with the DTH, said they feel they can’t voice their thoughts to the media without consequence.
“I think a policy of just ‘Don’t talk to the media’ is not a healthy one,” they said.
Blattner said the media policy is in effect because employees are not authorized to speak on behalf of Carolina Housing and to ensure that information is accurate and up to date.
When asked why RAs were asked to speak with their supervisors after being quoted by the DTH, Blattner said in an email: “Supervisors will follow up with any Carolina Housing staff member who does participate in a media interview reminding them about the policy and also outlining the proper steps when contacted by the media.”
Blattner said no staff members have faced disciplinary action for not following the policy.
An unclear policy
RAs' fears surrounding interviews persist despite a provision within the Carolina Housing media policy that states: “... we also recognize that our student staff are also residents of campus housing and are deserving of the same standards that we strive for with other residents.”
“In cases when a Carolina Housing staff member is asked to speak about their personal experience as a student, the policy permits the staff member to decide whether to respond to the request on their own,” Blattner said in a statement.
One RA said the media policy should be changed so that Carolina Housing's operations are not kept "hush hush."
RAs were uncertain about the policy prior to the pandemic, as well.
The senior RA said she couldn’t remember when the media policy had been covered in staff training, but it was reviewed after media organizations — including the DTH — had written about mold in UNC residence halls in fall 2019.
The media relations policy was read out in a staff meeting after the articles had been published, the RA said.
“We all had to sign and say that we had read it and received the information,” she said.
She recalled that a blank sheet of paper had been passed around for staff members present at the meeting to sign.
The policy is reviewed with staff at the beginning of each semester, Blattner said, as well as after instances of "increased media interest."
Lindsie Rank, the program officer of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the biggest problem with Carolina Housing’s policy is that it’s not “super clear.”
Rank said organizations cannot require prior permission for protected speech — meaning that RAs who want to speak to media in their personal capacities should not be required to get approval from their superiors.
“There’s First Amendment law on this subject that preserves RAs and other student employees’ rights, and other employees’ rights even, to speak to whoever they want in their personal capacities on matters of public concern,” Rank said.
One RA said that before she and her colleagues became worried about COVID-19 and the response of Carolina Housing’s senior leaders during fall reopening, she hadn’t considered talking to the media.
“It didn’t feel like the concerns were being heard,” she said. “So I think that’s what led me to start thinking more seriously of what is an alternative way where I feel like the voices can be heard and change can happen.”
In August, over 50 student staff members addressed a letter to Carolina Housing leadership, saying they did not feel safe working in their positions after they heard concerns about or witnessed residents in violation of COVID-19 guidelines.
Concerns about working on campus during a pandemic are not singular to UNC’s RAs.
At the University of Virginia, RAs published a list of COVID-19 and safety-related demands anonymously because they believed the Housing and Residence Life policy prevented them from speaking to the press on the record, as reported by the University’s student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily.
Subsequently, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote a letter to UVA on Sept. 11, explaining that the university "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."
FIRE provides Speech Code Ratings to over 400 colleges and universities, which designate how much an institution’s policies restrict freedom of speech.
The University of Virginia, which has a green light Speech Code Rating, revised its RA agreement last month to clarify that RAs could speak with the media, as long as it was in a personal capacity, not on behalf of UVA’s Resident Staff Program.
UNC currently has a green light rating from FIRE, as do other schools such as N.C. State University, UNC-Charlotte and Duke University.
Though Carolina Housing has a media relations policy, the UNC RAs quoted anonymously in this story want to know one answer clearly: when they can — and can’t — take the media’s questions.
“When I’m told I should not speak to the media, it feels like we’re hiding something," one RA said. "And I really hate that."