Freedom of speech for campus employees

By Ian Hagerty

Collegian File Photo
Collegian File Photo

Recently, while working on a different article, I went around campus asking a variety of people if I could interview them. Some people were fine with being asked a few questions and others were a bit more skeptical. The campus employees were another story entirely.

Nearly every single employee I talked to refused to discuss anything with any sort of press. When I approached these various University of Massachusetts employees, they often had a welcoming smile on their face until I took out my pad and pen.

One seemingly undergraduate aged girl that worked at the Procrastination Station in the Campus Center told me that she would not feel comfortable at all talking to the press, regardless of the nature of the discussion. The other girl working with her at the time also refused to talk.

I went into the Off-Campus Student Services office in the Student Union and I received an even stronger response. A friendly man working the front desk in the office formed a defensive wall and immediately told me that he was strictly forbidden by his employers to discuss anything with any form of the press. This was what I found most surprising – holding their tongue wasn’t only advised, it was required. He even said that he didn’t want to lose his job. He was afraid to lose his job. Fear was squashing his freedom of speech.

In Ohio, at the University of Toledo, an employee named Crystal Dixon was recently fired after writing an opinion column in the school paper to argue with an editorial. In no way did she mention her employment at the University within the article. A short time later, the school published another opinion column arguing against Ms. Dixon’s column and then fired her.

In the court briefing for the case of Dixon v. University of Toledo it is explained that the school “fired Dixon because they deemed in not in ‘accord’ with the ‘values’ of the University of Toledo.” Is this what could happen to UMass employees if they do talk to the press or write their opinion publicly?

UMass is still a university. This is why its full name is indeed still the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. However, a university is supposed to be a place where students have the freedom to pursue their education and lead it in the direction they so choose. A very large part of this equation is our freedom of speech, especially if we are expressing opposition to the actions of our own school.

Freedom of speech is something that this country was founded on and it flows from the very core of our mind as Americans. How can this be a proper institution for higher learning if the students can’t discuss anything?

It is easy to say that a student should probably just get a job off campus instead of working for the school, and we all know that there are quite a few students on campus that do not even have jobs. However, this really is not the point at hand. The point is that, as American citizens, we have a lawful, First Amendment right to the freedom of speech. It really is as plain and as simple as that.

The school would and should be obligated to require campus employees to keep certain confidential information private from the public, such as student records.

Concerning another freedom of speech case in 2006, Garcetti v. Ceballos, the Supreme Court wrote that, “It is well settled that a State cannot condition public employment on a basis that infringes the employee’s constitutionally protected interest in freedom of expression.”

Considering that UMass is a state university, it seems that the Supreme Court would uphold the right for a school employee to express their own opinion.

An intriguing parallel example that really strikes home concerns UMass itself. Only several years ago, in 2009, according to FIRE press, the Student Government Association (SGA), passed a resolution demanding that the Silent Majority, the group behind the former UMass Minuteman Newspaper publicly apologize for a satirical article that had been previously released.

Adam Kissel, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program said, “It is difficult to imagine how the SGA could have more thoroughly abused the First Amendment and humiliated UMass.”

Freedom of speech has been violated on the UMass campus before. It seems possible that it is yet again. As a university, we are part of the root system of education in this country. If we continue to let our roots wither and die, what is going to be left to hold the tree up?

Ian Hagerty is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]