By Sean P. Mulhall – Editor-in-Chief
Two weeks after student leaders at Grand Rapids Community College were told they could not speak to media outlets, including The Collegiate, without approval from GRCC’s Communications Department, college officials are now stating the directive, that First Amendment experts say challenges students First Amendment rights, was never college policy.
On Sept. 25, an email from Kathryn Mullins, Executive Deputy to the President and Board Liaison, was forwarded to Student Alliance adviser and Director of Student Life and Conduct, Sara Dorer, asking for help with media requests to “ensure that all media requests are centralized and tracked” and “ensure that Cabinet is kept in the loop around these requests and interviews.”
Dorer emailed GRCC Communications Director, Leah Nixon, on Sept. 25 and asked if this included student leaders communicating with student journalists.
On Oct. 6 Nixon replied to Dorer’s email stating, “Yes, the Collegiate reporters need to contact me before asking anyone on campus – faculty, staff or students – for an interview.”
Dorer then sent an email to members of Student Alliance and Evan Macklin, Coordinator of Student Life and Conduct, notifying them of the new policy.
“I can’t say that the rules are unfair… having the communications department is to ensure that all parties are being represented in the best way possible,” said Student Alliance President Arielle Brown. “We need to follow the rules, because then we can come to a compromise. As a student I need to trust that the rules are in place for a reason.”
Later when Dorer was contacted by The Collegiate she echoed Brown’s statement, and said that as an employee of the college, she was doing her job and passing on information that was expected to be relayed to the students she advises.
“I’m following the policy,” Dorer said. “Because it’s my job.”
Shortly after talking with The Collegiate on Oct. 17, Dorer called Nixon for clarification and sent an email out afterward to Student Alliance.
In the email it was explained that students did not have to follow the protocol that they were given and had been following for the previous two weeks.
“I’m happy with the clarification,” Brown said. “I’m glad we don’t have to do anything extra (to communicate with campus media).”
Robin Luce-Herrmann, a lawyer, specializing in the First Amendment, with the Michigan Press Association, said the college’s attempt to direct all media contact through communications raises concerns.
“The emails indicate that if you’re a reporter you can’t talk to another student about an issue on which you may be reporting unless you go through the communication department first,” Luce-Herrmann said. “So, that inhibits your right of association and which is a first amendment guarantee.”
Frank D. LoMonte, Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Virginia, agrees the communications approach is problematic.
“There is absolutely no question that it is a first amendment violation to tell a student when they may and may not speak with the press,” LoMonte said. “There’s not even room for debate there. A student is not subject to the authority of the college in the same way an employee is. If a student government official suffered any kind of punishment for giving an unauthorized interview with the media, that punishment would be immediately thrown out in court.
“In addition to being illegal, it flies in the face of the idea that the student government is the voice of the students.”
A GRCC document titled, “Protocol for Dealing with all Media Inquiries,” dated Nov. 6, 2012, states, “when reporters call, they are to be directed to Director Communications,” and the “Director of Communications will … maintain some control of the story – telling our story the way we want.”
Later in the document it says, “No one is to speak with a reporter without Director of Communications being present or been made previously aware of the meeting/conversation.”
The full document can be read here.
Experts say even if the policy doesn’t apply to student leaders, it still raises concerns.
“Overall I see the policy as violating the First Amendment, because it appears to attempt to control, or manipulate, future content of stories,” Luce-Herrmann said.
“That’s a more subtle form of censorship, but it’s still censorship,” LoMonte said. “To get between journalists and information is a form of censorship. The First Amendment has been interpreted to include not just a right to publish news, but gather news as well.”
In an Oct. 17 interview Nixon said that the student directive was not a part of GRCC policy and said she did not remember sending the email on Oct. 6 telling Dorer that Collegiate reporters must go through the communications department for an interview with any faculty, staff or students at GRCC.
“I’m not sure where (Student Alliance) got that information because that was not a communication that came from the communications department, nor have we had any previous conversations about it,” Nixon said. “Students are able to, if they feel comfortable … if they are approached and asked to provide their opinion on whatever the case may be, they are free, at their own will, to either comment, or if they do not wish to comment, they may also decline as well.
“I do not remember ever being on an email chain where students were told not to speak to the Collegiate,” Nixon said when asked about the series of emails. “I read about 200 emails that day, so it’s not ringing a bell for me.”
When asked about the issue of controlling story content referenced in the protocol, both Nixon and Mullins reiterated the fact that the document is there to help assist all media, as well as faculty and staff, when writing about the college.
In an interview Monday morning, Mullins was asked about the emails and media protocol. According to Mullins both are just matters of miscommunication.
“It’s not a policy, it’s a protocol,” Mullins said. “It’s a working document for our administrators, our faculty, our staff. It’s so they can understand, as a college, we have a story to tell. As any institution you have a story to tell.
“All we’re doing is making sure …that the media gets the information that they need … It’s not like we’re censoring. We’re not trying to censor. All this is a tool to help our faculty and staff to feel more comfortable.”
Managing/News Editor Jacquelyn Zeman also contributed to this story.