Skyline College loosens gag on faculty speech

One Bay Area college is backing off a policy to limit faculty speech to reporters after trying to clamp down on media access to protect its image.

Skyline College in San Bruno, with 10,500 students, sent an e-mail to faculty about a public relations policy which muzzles faculty and staff from speaking directly with reporters — including the student-run campus newspaper, the Skyline View.

Instead, questions and any proposed answers were to be submitted in writing through the school’s marketing, communications and public relations department for approval. The policy stated:

 “The Skyline College Media policy is designed to protect the Brand and image of the College. Therefore, we request that you do not directly answer any questions, but follow the procedure.”

However, after coming under fire this week from students, faculty and media groups, the school has backpedaled.

The media policy, in place since 2006 according to the Daily Journal, was updated in January as part of the college’s accreditation process, Skyline College’s Director of Marketing, Communications and Public Relations Cherie Colin told SFBay.

The old policy encouraged staff and faculty to use the public relations department as a resource center before speaking to reporters; the revised policy required it.

Colin told SFBay she takes full personal responsibility for crafting the new policy and insists it was never intended to restrict the flow of information from the college or hamper faculty member’s free speech.

She told SFBay she rushed in creating the new policy and now regrets her move, for which she apologized.

A new policy will be released later this semester after it’s properly vetted by faculty, staff and participatory government bodies on campus, according to Colin.

 “There is no way we want to restrict free speech. The policy was badly worded.”

Skyline faculty member Teeka James, president of American Federation of Teachers Local 1493, told the San Mateo Daily Journal the union would seek changes to the policy:

“It’s a perfect example of prior restraint on employee speech. An employee has the right to say their experience in the college. … It still has the effect of chilling conversation and making employees feel like they’ll be in trouble if they speak to the press. It’s unclear if it’s just a recommendation, but that’s the way people are perceiving it.”

The policy also asked Skyline staff to refrain from speaking to reporters ‘off the record’ so information can’t be used to damage the school’s reputation.

Off the record is a phrase used by media to describe a conversation with reporters that won’t be published. In its most formal interpretation, off the record information is not even supposed to be used to corroborate or track down other sources.

Journalism students taking the school’s newspaper class, which primarily reports on campus issues, were told they also must route their questions through the public relations department.

The Skyline View published an editorial criticizing the school’s policy:

 “This stops the flow of information at the very place we need to access it, our teachers and our mentors. Without being able to ask questions we are losing the edge that makes us journalists.”