Montclair State University’s Office of Residence Life recently caused outrage among students and organizations over concerns for their employees’ freedom of speech. More specifically, their Residence Assistants (RAs) freedom to speak out to the media and comment on sexual assault or harassment in the dorms.
The university detailed how RAs must remain silent when it comes to speaking negatively about Montclair State in their contract: “RAs must refrain from making statements to media outlets that would reflect negatively on the Office of Residence Life or Montclair State University.”
To further ignite the fuel, a popular student-run Instagram account, @montclairstateconfessions, posted a confession regarding the topic.
“[My] friend was sexually harassed and assaulted in her dorm room last year and when her RA told [Residence Life] about it they fired her RA and never reached out to her. My friend no longer goes to [Montclair State],” the student said.
A non-profit organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), came to the RAs’ rescue and reached out to the university and the Office of Residence Life themselves. FIRE describes itself as defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities.
The organization wrote a letter to Montclair State’s President Jonathan Koppell, after reading an article from The Montclarion, “Editorial: Are Reslife Employees Being Silenced?”
“[FIRE] is concerned by reports that [Montclair State] prohibits student resident assistants from ‘making statements to media outlets that would reflect negatively’ on the university,” FIRE’s letter to President Koppell said. “This practice of prior restraint violates students’ fundamental First Amendment rights. We request that [Montclair State] ease these restrictions and make clear to RAs that they may speak with the press in their individual capacities.”
The letter added that students working as RAs still have rights as an employee of the university.
“Individuals, including students, who take employment roles at public institutions do not ‘relinquish First Amendment rights to comment on matters of public interest by virtue of government employment,’” the letter said.
The university’s counsel responded with their own letter and explained the reason for the policy, but noted that it will be changed.
“This letter confirms that the statement you referenced was removed from the job description for Residential Assistants,” the university’s letter said.
The news of the policy change pleased many of Montclair State’s RAs, including Serena Thomas, a freshman RA in Bohn Hall majoring in public health.
“I feel that this change is going to have a positive impact on RAs and the university,” Thomas said. “No college is [one] hundred percent perfect and RAs shouldn’t be expected to portray that image. Of course, there may be some negatives with [Montclair State], but I think we should be free to give an honest portrayal of the university for future students.”
Thomas further explained the issue with universities and how they protect their public image.
“I feel like there will be RAs who may have a slew of complaints that they may unleash in the media,” Thomas said. “But I think that they should be taken as suggestions for improvement rather than an attack on the university. There are definitely areas that could be improved on and I hope the words of the RAs that step up will be respected in the future. Personally, I hope that this will lead to other student leaders on campus being able to enact their First Amendment rights as well.”
Dr. Dawn Soufleris, the vice president of student development and campus life, decided to listen to FIRE and students’ voices and rescind the policy.
“The portion of the RA job description that was in question was something that had been added many years ago (long before many of our staff in [student development and campus life] were here) and clearly does not represent Montclair State’s support for freedom of speech,” Soufleris said. “As soon as we were made aware that this was in the job description, it was removed and an updated RA job description is being sent to all of our RA’s on staff for the 2022-23 academic year.”
Soufleris also explained Montclair State changed its policy because it was not aligned with the university’s values and morals.
“I am actually grateful that this was brought to my attention and that we were able to eradicate the issue so swiftly,” Soufleris said. “It was the right and just thing to do.”