In October of last year, an e-mail went out to the staff of The Michigan Daily with the subject line of: “Important message about petitions and causes.” That e-mail drew my attention. I saved it, and an excerpt (including original emphasis) follows:
“If you are on staff or are in the process of becoming a staff member, you CANNOT sign any petitions or post links to petitions on your Facebook wall. This also applies to expressing your opinion about issues on campus. For example, you cannot publicly state your opinion about controversial topics like the pro-life exhibit on the Diag.”
The e-mail reflected a policy that I’ve seen slowly crystallizing at this newspaper for several years now — one that I’ve never really been comfortable with. In previous (and more benign) forms, the policy was difficult to contest. But as it stands in the final form expressed in that e-mail, that policy is clearly wrong, and can’t be the actual rule.
The Daily simply can’t ban staffers from “publicly expressing [his or her] opinions about controversial topics.” To do so would be a grave violation of this paper’s own free speech ideals, and may even violate actual legal standards pertaining to free speech.
Upon digging into the Daily’s bylaws, I am happy to report that the strict policy expressed in that email is actually not the Daily’s official rule. I write this column to clarify the true rule that the Daily’s bylaws have established to negotiate the line between journalistic ethics and personal freedom of speech. It’s important that the Daily’s current leaders pay close attention to the relevant parts of the Daily’s bylaws and stop enforcing the erroneous, overbroad policy expressed in that e-mail.
The entirety of this issue is actually governed by just one segment of the Daily’s bylaws — Section III.2.A of the Code of Ethics. The relevant excerpt of that section follows:
“The Daily’s beat reporters should not reveal their bias about their beats … Similarly, general assignment reporters and photographers may not reveal their biases about stories they are covering. Editors may not reveal their bias about any story or issue they may assign or rewrite. News reporters and editors may not reveal personal opinions in the Daily that damage the news section’s reputation of objectivity. Daily staff members who are not covering a specific beat, issue, or event may reveal their biases, but not as a representative of the Daily. Any Daily staffers who have identified themselves as representatives of other organizations at public events should not simultaneously or subsequently identify themselves as Daily staffers in that context.”
So, that section prohibits beat reporters from expressing their personal opinions about their beats, and it also prohibits “general assignment reporters and photographers” from revealing their biases about stories they are covering. That’s fair enough, and completely necessary to maintain objectivity of the news section. It also takes further steps to limit Daily staffers from expressing opinions on issues that they may be involved with in their official capacity at the Daily.
But you’ll notice that at every step, the Code of Ethics hedges and qualifies the restrictions — before ultimately stating that Daily staffers are generally allowed to express their opinions as long as they don’t do so as representatives of the Daily. The nuance in that rule is crucial to maintaining the proper balance between journalistic integrity and personal freedom of speech of Daily staffers. That nuance should not be lost.
Without digging too far into the law pertaining to free speech (because I don’t think this issue should even come to that), I briefly summarize to underscore the seriousness of the issue. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that public employees do not lose their free speech rights as a result of their employment. There are many factors to consider, but broad restrictions on expressing any opinions publicly almost always fail the test. And while Daily staffers may not see themselves as public employees, their checks come from a public University, and the body of law applying to other public employees will likely apply here.
Potential legal violations aside, the Daily has a strong core belief in a broad application of the concept of free speech. It’s important that those in charge of the paper apply those ideals to the free speech rights of their staffers outside of the Daily. The Daily’s bylaws strike an important balance on this front, and it can’t be ignored.
The public editor is an independent critic of the Daily, and neither the editorial board nor the editor in chief exercise control over the contents of his columns. The opinions expressed do not necessarily constitute the opinion of the Daily. Imran Syed can be reached at email@example.com.