As students return to campus amidst a global pandemic, news stories are popping up, citing the concerns of resident assistants in dormitories about how some universities are handling safety.

Almost all of the concerns are from RAs who are speaking anonymously, and almost all of the stories cite policies that prevent them from speaking on the record.

For example, at Southern Illinois University, RAs said they were upset about finding out in a chance encounter there was a COVID19 patient on their floor.

One RA told the student newspaper, The Daily Egyptian, “There are zero precautions in place that keep us safe.” 

In Episode 2, we talked about how Brechner Center research found that public universities are unconstitutionally gagging the rights of student athletes by making rules that they can’t speak to the media. Similar research has found that this is a problem for resident assistants too.

Of the 20 public universities where we were able to obtain policies, we found at least 11 were problematic, saying things like “do not speak with any media” and “call the department head if the media has questions.”

The worst example we found was at East Carolina University, where the RA contract says the director must be told of all media contacts “even in a personal unofficial role.”

“Yes, that’s all automatically going to be a violation of the First Amendment,” said Louis Clark, executive director of the Government Accountability Project. “You have the freedom of speech. You’re working for a public university. If this public university ends up essentially directing you, that you cannot speak publicly about anything related to the job, then that, in and of itself, is a violation of the First Amendment because they’re the government and the First Amendment is directed at the government.”

While these policies have been around for a while, the coronavirus highlights why this is bad policy. 

“RAs are not just employees talking about their workplace, but they’re students talking about their home,” said Adam Steinbaugh, the director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“The broader world is struggling to respond to the pandemic,” he said. “Institutions of higher education are not islands in dealing with that. I think it’s important that institutions, especially institutions of higher education, be able to allow people to voice those concerns.”

We used public records requests to obtain these policies and the policy that we received from the University of Florida had previously been marked before it was handed over. 

A  highlighted portion reads that a resident assistant, “is not allowed to speak to any member of the media unless requested or given permission to do so by a member of Senior Management.”

And below that, is additional text noting that the university “has probably violated that person’s First Amendment rights.”

It’s not clear who made that marking — all we know is that it was made before we got the document.

We asked the University of Florida if that policy still in place, but didn’t get an answer. 

“This is a bit of conjecture, but I assume they don’t want people speaking out, therefore they provide that instruction with the assumption that people are going to abide by that and won’t speak out even though it’s a matter of great public concern,” Clark said. “Institutions tend to want to control information. And so therefore they do often in promulgating policies that they assume people will abide by even if they’re unconstitutional.”