“I’m sorry, I’m too scared to do it.”
Last week we asked resident assistants across campus to talk to us off the record about what they’re allowed to say to the press. This was one of their responses.
It’s common knowledge at the Texan that it’s difficult to interview resident assistants. Most reporters assume RAs are not allowed to talk to the media at all, because some will tell you they aren’t.
“According to my boss, RAs aren’t allowed to talk to The Daily Texan, the reason being that anything we say reflects on University Housing and Dining.”
But this sort of blanket ban on talking to the press is illegal, and not technically UHD’s policy.
According to Cynthia Lew, the marketing manager at UHD, RAs aren’t told not to talk to the press point blank. Instead, they’re told to pass all requests to the marketing and communications team, which is headed by her.
“I coordinate from there just to make sure that we are conveying consistent messaging and correct information,” Lew said. “But that doesn’t mean the RA can’t take the interview, I’m just the central point of contact so that we can gather and understand the questions that are being asked that impact our business.”
According to Shauna Sobers, assistant director for residence life at UHD, this policy applies whenever RAs get a request, regardless of the topic.
“The expectation is that anytime they receive a request — no matter if it’s personal or someone asking for their opinion about the job or residence halls — the expectation … is that they communicate that with their supervisors,” Sobers said.
This sort of policy makes sense on the surface. UHD doesn’t want RAs spreading misinformation to news outlets or speaking on behalf of the department out of turn, which seems reasonable.
But this creates a sticky situation for a lot of RAs.
Most of the time — at least in the Opinion department — when we ask RAs to talk to us, we’re asking them to provide their opinions on their job and their working conditions. It’s hard to be honest about how your employer treats you when they’re looking over your shoulder.
Last year, one of our columnists was working on a story about RA wages. She wanted to argue that RAs don’t get paid fairly — they work weekends, one break, long hours and usually make little more than minimum wage. But she couldn’t get a single RA to talk about it.
This is why it’s illegal for companies in the U.S. to require their employees not talk to the press — it can keep important information about how employees are being treated out of the public eye and perpetuate poor working conditions.
A lot of RAs don’t understand that they’re allowed to take interview requests, even through a supervisor.
One RA told us they were explicitly instructed not to disclose any information to reporters, specifically those at The Daily Texan. Another RA confirmed that they were told point blank not to talk to the press. One RA said he felt his job would be threatened if he spoke to the Texan — and with it, his housing.
Some of the RAs we interviewed said they knew to direct media requests to their supervisors, but most interpreted this policy as a requirement that they not speak to reporters at all.
Miscommunication about policy also impacts student reporters who live in University residence halls.
Last semester, one of our columnists interviewed students in the common room of her dorm for a story that would likely be critical of UHD. The reporter’s RA sent her this email in response:
“I just wanted to gently remind you that you aren’t allowed to knock on doors and formally interview residents … I don’t want you to get in trouble with housing as you research for your story.”
She was terrified. She lived in the dorm, and her RA told her she violated policy by trying to do her job for the Texan. She feared her housing could be threatened if she used the interviews she obtained by talking to residents, even though they’d agreed to interview.
Our editor-in-chief asked UHD what policy prohibits student reporters from talking to other residents, and there isn’t one. Sobers said it may have fallen under the umbrella of “solicitation,” which is designed to keep people from disrupting residents.
The residence hall manual doesn’t define solicitation precisely. It only says it’s prohibited.
Regardless of whether UHD would have actually pursued punishment against her, it looks to us like a deliberately broad interpretation of a policy used to scare a student reporter. This is unacceptable.
UHD’s behavior creates an atmosphere of secrecy. It makes students — reporters and RAs alike — fear that their housing is contingent on what they say about UHD.
Of all UT’s departments, UHD has the most direct power over students. For students who live on campus, UHD means food and a place to sleep. While protecting the interests of your business makes sense, you can’t do it by muffling the voices of students.