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Free-speech group: NCC policy violates staffers’ civil rights

The Nassau Community College campus in Uniondale as

The Nassau Community College campus in Uniondale as seen on Thursday June 28, 2018 Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

A national civil-liberties group has challenged a media policy at Nassau Community College saying it violates the free-speech rights of faculty and staff members, and college officials say they are reviewing the directive.

The policy requires employees to notify the college’s Office of Governmental Affairs and Media Relations if they are contacted by the news media or if they wish to have media coverage of an event or achievement.

According to the policy, adopted by the board of trustees of the 20,000-student college in 2017, employees who fail to notify the office could face unspecified “disciplinary action.”

“Our colleges and universities are the intellectual engines of our democracy,” said Will Creeley, senior vice president of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a national nonprofit that focuses on defending First Amendment rights. “Some of the smartest folks in our country are teaching at our public colleges and to put a muzzle on them does all of us a disservice.”

FIRE, contacted in February by several professors, wrote to college officials twice in April asking that the policy be rescinded, saying it violates employees’ First Amendment rights. The college has yet to respond to the group, Creeley said.

But in response to questions from Newsday, college officials expressed concern that the policy was “not being perceived as intended.” In a statement, the officials noted that no action has been taken against any employee under the policy.

“While the sole purpose of the policy is to ensure the efficiency of official communications with media outlets on behalf of the college, given that the intent is misunderstood by some, the college welcomes the opportunity to further evaluate the policy in question,” officials said.

The policy is being reviewed, they added, noting that any changes would need to go through the board of trustees, which next meets in September.

The move comes amid a national discussion about free speech on college campuses, which has often focused on those with controversial messages. The University of California, Berkeley canceled Ann Coulter’s speech in April 2017 after threats of violence, and a protest over a controversial speaker at Middlebury College in Vermont left one faculty member injured in March last year.

Creeley said he is unaware of other public institutions with similar policies, noting that FIRE has confronted other schools that have attempted to put them in place. Clemson University for example, in 2010, at FIRE’s urging, clarified its policy that required faculty and employees to tell university officials before contacting public officials.

Suffolk County Community College does not have a written policy regarding faculty and staff speaking with the media, said SCCC spokesman Drew Biondo. The college prefers employees to refer questions about the institution and its policies to the media office, but staffers can speak to the media without fear of retribution, he said.

Farmingdale State College also suggests, but does not require, that faculty and staff work with its media office, college spokeswoman Kathy Coley said. The office also offers media training for employees.

Hofstra University takes a similar approach, encouraging those who would speak on behalf of the private institution to go through its media relations office, university spokeswoman Karla Schuster said.

Even though Nassau Community College has taken no disciplinary action against faculty to date, the fact that it could under the policy has created a chilling effect, said David Stern, an associate science professor at NCC.

“It has shut down faculty from talking to the press,” he said, maintaining that it’s important for faculty members to feel like they can speak up about issues that arise or areas in need of improvement.

“I still think we’re the best community college in the system, in the state, and that’s based on this tradition of collaborative decision making and people feeling free to voice their concerns,” he said.

With the policy, “I don’t think my voice will be heard,” Stern said.

NCC, located in Garden City, is the largest single-campus community college in the state’s public system. Its $200 million budget is funded by Nassau County, the state, and students’ tuition.

Employees at public institutions have much more freedom than their counterparts at private schools, said Mark B. Grabowski, an associate professor of communications at Adelphi University.

“Speaking to the media is not part of a professor’s normal duties. So, when a professor does so, it’s as a private citizen and NCC doesn’t have authority to control or reprimand their speech,” he said. “A ‘program, event or achievement’ — to use the policy’s words — at a community college [is] a matter of public concern. Not only are the professors free to speak about that, but they may also speak about it critically.”

The college should tread lightly, Grabowski said. “There’s a growing perception that free speech is under attack at colleges — and policies like this reinforce that concern.”

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