UC Santa Cruz telling employees that journalists’ inquiries — including recently about layoffs at the school’s agroecology center and about last year’s academic workers strike — should go through the university’s media relations office could be seen as “inherently coercive” and restricting employees’ free speech, the legal director of the First Amendment Coalition told Lookout.
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UC Santa Cruz’s practice of discouraging staff to speak directly to journalists, and instead routing all media requests through a university spokesperson, is raising alarms for free speech experts.
Lookout interviewed, or attempted to interview, several staff members of UCSC’s Center of Agroecology for a recent story about a controversial reorganization at the center. In some cases, staff members initially agreed to be interviewed. But later they requested Lookout direct all questions to campus legal counsel, the university’s media relations office, or to Assistant Vice Chancellor of University Relations Scott Hernandez-Jason.
“I wanted to let folks know that there is a reporter from Lookout Santa Cruz who is planning to write an article about the Center’s reorganization. If she reaches out to you, the campus is requesting that all media inquiries be directed to Scott Hernandez-Jason,” the center’s executive director, Darryl Wong, wrote in an email to staff Feb. 9. A staff member provided the email to Lookout.
“Similarly, if and when the article is published, there may be additional media inquiries and those should also be directed to Scott.”
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Previously, Wong himself initially agreed to an interview with Lookout, but later said the university had directed all questions to Hernandez-Jason.
The Center for Agroecology, which has drawn fire after laying off five staff members, is only the most recent example of UCSC staff directing all media inquiries to Hernandez-Jason.
In November, Lookout reached out to all five of the school’s deans to request interviews about how their divisions were being affected by the University of California systemwide academic student worker strikes.
In response, Pamela Dewey, executive assistant to Dean of Social Sciences Katharyne Mitchell, wrote on Nov. 21 that Mitchell’s office had received Lookout’s request and that “for information about the ongoing UAW strike, please contact Scott Hernandez-Jason, cc’d above.”
Alexander Wolf, dean of the Baskin School of Engineering, similarly responded, “I am passing on your request to Scott Hernandez-Jason, the campus communications director.”
Hernandez-Jason told Lookout that universities often have media relations offices work on inquiries related to the university’s administration, its policies and practices.
“It’s common practice among universities to have the media relations office coordinate inquiries from journalists when there are questions about the institution’s official positions,” he wrote in an email Wednesday. “It is neither unusual, nor does it go against First Amendment rights.”
“Some units, such as the Center for Agroecology, may not be familiar with our protocol because they are not often contacted by reporters,” he added. “When they might hear from reporters, we remind employees of the support and coordination provided by the media relations office.”
Hernandez-Jason didn’t respond to questions about whether his office told staff they were allowed to speak to the media directly. He also didn’t address questions about whether UCSC has a formal policy for how campus community members engage with the media.
David Loy, legal director at the First Amendment Coalition, told Lookout that while public agencies, including publicly funded universities, can have a spokesperson respond to the media on behalf of the institution, all staff members have a constitutional right to speak on their own behalf.
“The examples that you have shared with me are very troubling and raise very significant First Amendment problems,” he said. “To the extent that the university is now implicitly or explicitly restraining and restricting staff or faculty from talking to the press, even in their own names, then that is a very serious First Amendment problem.”
The First Amendment Coalition is a nonprofit organization based in San Rafael that is focused on advocating for freedom of speech.
Loy said that even an informal request from a representative of a public institution’s senior administration to redirect media inquiries can raise significant concerns that an employee would interpret the messaging as a directive from the employer, rather than a simple request.
“If you’re a public employer, you should not even be requesting that they not speak, because that violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the First Amendment because any so-called request is going to be inherently coercive,” he said. “Unless you make abundantly clear that there will be no consequences of retaliation for speaking. But I think that there should not even be the appearance of coercion here.”
That is particularly true for public universities, which should be committed to academic freedom, Loy added.
“That is the very lifeblood of a university — freedom of thought, freedom of expression,” he said. “A university above all should be especially committed to respecting freedom of speech.”