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Skyline limits faculty speech: Community college policy prohibits staff from talking to the press directly; officials say clarification coming
March 18, 2014, 05:00 AM By Angela Swartz Daily Journal

Skyline College students and employees are concerned about a media policy which some feel restricts their free speech, while the administration says it plans to clarify it so people aren’t afraid to talk to the media.

The school sent out an email to Skyline employees last week informing them that a media policy has been in place — since 2006 — at the San Bruno community college that asks faculty and staff go through the public relations department before answering media questions. The school does plan on sending out a clarification that this only applies to talking about program services, policies or occurrences on campus and not to commenting on areas of expertise in one’s field.

“If you are approached by the media to discuss any program services, policies or occurrences on the Skyline College campus, please request that the reporter submit their questions to you in writing,” it states. “Please forward the questions and your suggested responses to the Director of Marketing, Communications and Public Relations, Cherie Colin. … Please do not agree to conduct an interview with a member of the media. If you are asked to be interviewed, please gather information on what the nature of the interview is, get the questions the reporter plans to ask in writing and consult Cherie Colin. It may be appropriate for you to go ahead and conduct the interview, but only after having a conversation with Cherie Colin to properly prepare, may you do so.”

It goes on to state in a section labeled tip “not agree to talk off the record with a reporter. Nothing is off-record when speaking to the media.”

Faculty members like Teeka James, president of American Federation of Teachers Local 1493, that represents faculty in all three colleges of the San Mateo County Community College District, said the policy was news to everyone and that it violates free speech. She said the teachers union is going to ask to negotiate the policy and have the administration clarify what it means.

“It’s a perfect example of prior restraint on employee speech,” she said. “An employee has the right to say their experience in the college. … It still has the effect of chilling conversation and making employees feel like they’ll be in trouble if they speak to the press. It’s unclear if it’s just a recommendation, but that’s the way people are perceiving it.”

The idea behind it is to make sure the school gets the media effective, efficient and accurate information, Colin said. The email also states the policy is designed to protect the brand and image of the college.

“It’s to make sure whatever is said is reflective of what the institution thinks as a whole,” she said. “The idea is not to stop anyone from talking to the media if they’re not talking on behalf of the college.”

She used the example of a biology professor speaking as a field expert about a particular whale as being appropriate.

No other school in the district, nor the district itself, has this type of policy, said Ron Galatolo, chancellor of the school district.

This policy includes all major media outlets as well as school’s student newspaper The Skyline View. The newspaper wrote an editorial in opposition to the policy, stating that it restricts all faculty and administrative staff from speaking candidly with reporters for any reason.

“This stops the flow of information at the very place we need to access it, our teachers and our mentors,” it stated. “Without being able to ask questions we are losing the edge that makes us journalists. … We feel that is only detrimental to the public face of our college. It expresses a lack of trust in our ability as journalists to seek truth and to print stories worthwhile to our campus community, as well as, a lack of trust in our faculty’s ability to represent Skyline.”

This policy delays the newspaper’s process infinitely, said Editor in Chief Aaron Washington.

“Overall we just don’t feel policy is fair to us as journalists,” Washington said. “It restricts what we’re able to do. We’re hearing now they’re trying to change the wording of the policy.”

There will be a clarification sent out since the school doesn’t want to create an environment in which people are afraid to talk to the media, said Skyline President Regina Stanback Stroud.

“It (the email) was a clarification to let people know we have a PIO (public information officer) that’s here to support you,” she said. “You can speak off the record, but we’re advising not to. … Students have deadlines and we don’t want to make it harder for them to accomplish their goals. We want them to be successful. We definitely see we have some cleanup to do.”

(650) 344-5200 ext. 105



Tags: media, policy, college,

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