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University officials regularly stifle student athlete free speech: study

Eighty-six percent of schools surveyed restrict student-athlete speech

A new study concluded that athletic departments regularly silence student-athletes and require them to seek approval before commenting to the media.

The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida published the results in a recent edition of the Nebraska Law Review, along with the First Amendment Foundation. The researchers looked at 58 student-athlete handbooks from Division I public universities.

Frank LoMonte, the director of the Brechner Center a and a co-author of the study, said that 86 percent of the 58 college handbooks they reviewed “explicitly forbade athletes from speaking to journalists without permission from the athletic department.”

“High as it is, the 86 percent figure almost certainly understates the pervasiveness of gag rules, because even some universities that claimed to have no written policy said coaches instruct their players verbally,” LoMonte wrote in an article summarizing his research for the Poynter Institute.

The professor said “colleges have convinced themselves that they have the legal authority to control what athletes say” but free speech is “explicitly protected by the Constitution.”

Part of the problem is that athletes fall into a grey area between employees and students, LoMonte and his co-author, Virginia Hamrick, point out in the study. Hamrick is an attorney with the First Amendment Foundation.

“Athletes are treated as occupying a nether zone, fitting comfortably neither in the category of ‘student’ nor ‘employee,’” the pair wrote.

“But regardless of which legal status applies to student-athletes, the outcome should be the same: government agencies—including state universities—do not have plenary authority to restrain people from speaking to the press and public.”

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However, schools do not follow this. “Policies typically instruct athletes that, if contacted by a reporter, they must refer the reporter to the athletic department’s Sports Information or Media Relations office which will decide whether to approve the interview,” LoMonte and Hamrick said.

They linked university silencing of athlete speech to situations such as the long-time sexual abuse of gymnasts by Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar.

The researchers said student-athletes “are uniquely vulnerable to exploitation because of the cultural norms of competitive sports” such as “conforming to rules” and “obeying authority figures.”

Speech policies can inhibit student activism, the study reported. For example, Kansas State University banned its equestrian team members from talking to the media about the cancellation of the sport, without prior approval from the athletic department.

Similarly, “[f]ootball coaches commonly tell players that they will never be granted permission to speak to the media during their first year.”

Administrators claim protection of students from unsavory characters as a justification for some media policies. For example, campus officials will forbid students “from giving journalists their personal contract information, even when journalists ask for the information to check facts or pose follow-up questions.”

“These and other restrictions on athletes’ communications commonly are rationalized as an attempt to manage distractions or to keep athletes from unwittingly sharing information with gambling operations or other unsavory outsiders,” the study said.

The athletic department can work with student-athletes to establish reasonable restrictions to protect their ability to succeed academically and as athletes.

“But a wholesale ban on unapproved interaction with the news media is unlikely to prove constitutionally permissible if challenged, doubly so without standards to ensure that interviews are not rejected because of the views the athletes intend to express,” the pair concluded.

Read the full study.

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About the Author
Matt is assistant editor for The College Fix. He previously worked at Students for Life of America, Students for Life Action and Turning Point USA. While in college, he also wrote for The College Fix as well as his college newspaper, The Loyola Phoenix. He holds a B.A. from Loyola University-Chicago and a M.A. from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He lives in northwest Indiana with his family.