Carolina Housing revised its media relations policy in November, stating that it “does not limit employees’ ability to comment on their personal experiences.”
The revision comes after months of confusion from employees about whether they could legally speak to the media when asked about the University’s COVID-19 response.
The revision clarifies that staff members may speak about personal experiences or reflections, so long as they do not share “confidential information about Carolina students or other University employees, including resident advisors."
“We wanted to be very clear about this distinction,” Carolina Housing Executive Director Allan Blattner said in a statement.
The previous media relations policy for Carolina Housing staff lacked this clarification. Since March, many resident advisers and other student staff members who spoke to The Daily Tar Heel felt they needed to do so anonymously, to preserve their employment with Carolina Housing.
“I have some thoughts, and anonymous means that I don’t rock the boat,” a senior RA told the DTH in October.
The revised Carolina Housing Professional and Student Employee Media Relations Policy was developed with the UNC Office of University Counsel and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
FIRE wrote a letter to the University, citing DTH stories in which housing staff had spoken anonymously, and requested that “UNC publicly clarify that RAs will not be punished for speaking as private citizens on matters of public concern, provided that they do not reveal information made confidential by law.”
For years, the University has had a green-light Speech Code Rating from FIRE, meaning that FIRE is not “currently aware of any serious threats to students' free speech rights in the policies on that campus.”
“UNC, for all of the issues that we see pop up there, they do I think really value their green-light status, and they really value being seen as an institution that protects free expression,” Lindsie Rank, a program officer for the Individual Rights Defense Program at FIRE, said.
Following the letter and a discussion between University Counsel and FIRE, Carolina Housing finalized the amended policy on Nov. 18. Current staff members were notified of the revised policy and it was posted on the Carolina Housing website, Media Relations said in an email.
UNC media law professor Tori Ekstrand said though the amended policy is a “good step,” its execution is important as well.
“Some examples for RAs is going to be really important, so they understand what this looks like, practically speaking,” Ekstrand said.
Carolina Housing will train student staff on the revised policy upon their return in January, Media Relations said in an email.
Students in Ekstrand’s MEJO 448: Freedom of Expression course conducted a project interviewing students about their experiences during the pandemic. When her students were trying to reach out to RAs, some responded saying they could not give interviews.
“They felt chilled by the policy because it was not clear to them what was permissible and what wasn't,” Ekstrand said.
This issue is seen beyond UNC as well. Since working with UNC, Rank said FIRE has written to other universities about similar media policies.
“These are definitely going to be something that we continue to keep an eye out for and continue to try to advocate for revisions,” Rank said.
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