Fraternity policy limits media access to members at Penn State

PENNSYLVANIA — The editor in chief at Pennsylvania StateUniversity’s student paper says a new Interfraternity Council media policy ispreventing reporters from covering major campus events and restricting thepaper’s access to about 2,500 fraternity members.

The IFC “public relations policy,” which was approved by the presidents ofmember fraternities, says all fraternity members must seek approval from theexecutive board before they can comment to the press.

Daily Collegian Editor in Chief Devon Lash said the policy hasbecome a free speech issue because members now fear retribution for speaking tothe press.

IFC President Abe Gitterman sent an e-mail to fraternity members last weektelling them to “NOT under any circumstances talk to the Daily Collegian aboutanything,” according to a copy of the e-mail on the Collegian‘s Web site.

In a separate e-mail to presidents of IFC fraternities, also posted on theCollegian Web site, Gitterman said anyone who talks to theCollegian without consent from the executive board “will be heldaccountable by the Vice President of Standards.”

“He seems to think that fraternities are portrayed very negatively in thepress,” Lash said. “His response to that was to put the system onlockdown.”

Lash cited media coverage last semester of a YouTube video showing membersof a Penn State fraternity yelling obscenities and throwing beer cans at someOhio State fans.

The IFC policy was not created to “hinder the First Amendment,” saidMattison Ford, IFC vice president of communications, in an e-mail Wednesday tothe Student Press Law Center.

“The IFC has no intent to hold student members and/or their chaptersaccountable if they choose to exercise their freedom of speech rights,” Fordsaid in the e-mail. “It was created to help inform the members on correct andproper methods of communicating to media outlets.”

The IFC is currently taking steps to clarify the policy language to makeclear that it is not intended to censor fraternity members, Ford said in thee-mail.

If the policy did become a censorship issue, the Division of StudentAffairs would step in, said Roy Baker, director of Greek Life and Advancement atPenn State.

“The policy is simply saying, when there’s a crisis … there should be acoordinated response from the IFC instead of random students making comments,”Baker said. “It’s unfortunate that the IFC president basically threatened themembers of the fraternity community with judicial action.”

The policy, as posted on the Collegian Web site, says the IFC executive board must be consulted “regarding any information thatwill be printed in the Daily Collegian or any publication, including but notlimited to philanthropy and community service events, educational programming,advertising for recruitment, and other IFC related issues and policies.”

The First Amendment restricts only state actors or entities that exercisegovernment powers from limiting free speech. Although the IFC is a studentorganization that has been given authority by the university to govern thefraternities on campus, it is still a close call on whether the IFC policy is anillegal restriction on free speech, said Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for theStudent Press Law Center.

If the IFC did not exist, the question is “would the school otherwise havethe power to control these sororities and fraternities?” he said.

If the group is given the authority to perform a function that theuniversity would otherwise have to perform, then the claim that it violatesspeech rights is stronger, Hiestand said. One would have to show the connectionbetween the Penn State Board of Trustees, the IFC, and the powers “officiallydelegated” to them, he said.

Baker said under current policy, the IFC could not punish a member forspeaking his opinion.

“No fraternity would ever be disciplined or sanctioned in any way forspeaking to the press or anybody else,” he said. “The IFC president has taken itto a different level and [is] making comments that are inappropriate.”