U. of Alabama guidelines restrict media access to sorority rush

A year after the student newspaper at the University of Alabama released a scathing report detailing the persistence of racial segregation in sorority recruiting, university officials released new guidelines restricting media access to those involved in rush.

In The Crimson White story “The Final Barrier,” reporters Abbey Crain and Matt Ford described how qualified African-American candidates were denied admission to historically white sororities because of an “almost impenetrable color barrier.” The journalists documented only one instance in the university’s history in which an African-American woman was accepted into a predominantly-white sorority.

According to a list of guidelines university officials distributed to The Crimson White and other news agencies last week, no representatives from UA Greek Affairs, the Panhellenic Executive Council or any of the sororities will be available for interviews during the weeklong Sorority Recruitment Week, which ends Saturday. All media questions should be directed to UA University Relations, according to the guidelines, which The Crimson White gave to the Student Press Law Center.

“Media should not encroach on the front yards of sorority houses, enter any porches or knock on any doors as sorority houses are private property,” according to the guidelines. “Media should not disrupt students as they move along the sidewalks.”

The guidelines said the same rules will apply on bid day on Saturday, where recruits receive their bids at Bryant-Denny Stadium; media will not be allowed in the stadium.

“Recruitment week is extremely busy for everyone in Greek affairs, for all the girls in Panhellenic,” university spokeswoman Cathy Andreen told The Crimson White. “We will certainly have some information available after it’s over, but there’s really not anyone available for interviews right now.”

Andreen said in an email the university is not attempting to restrict communications between news media and students.

“As always, reporters are free to solicit interviews and information from anyone they want to contact,” she said. “And, University Relations will continue to respond to media questions, as we have throughout the week.”

But Deanne Winslett, the newspaper’s editor in chief, argued otherwise. When the staff received the letter last week, Winslett said she shared the letter with the editor reporting on recruitment and the newspaper adviser. They wrote an article on the guidelines, she said, because “we wanted to be transparent with our audience about the situation.”

“The language used in the guidelines, such as the phrase ‘any sorority,’ implies that the university is enforcing that girls going through recruitment should not speak to media,” Winslett said. “Blocking the girls rushing from speaking freely to the media about their recruitment and Bid Day experiences would indicate a concerning lack of transparency.”

Along with being a “profoundly misguided public-relations strategy,” several of the guidelines may be illegal, Frank LoMonte, the Student Press Law Center’s executive director, said in a letter he sent Tuesday to Karen Baldwin, UA’s vice president for university advancement.

LoMonte said that while it is legitimate for the university to remind journalists not to trespass on private property, “we are particularly concerned about the directives the Media Guidelines purporting to members of the media and individual students who may wish to speak with them.”

Such a “gag order,” he continued, interferes with the First Amendment.

“We are concerned, as well, about purported restrictions on how journalists may approach sources to request interviews,” LoMonte said. “Unless there is a blanket policy that no visitor may knock on the door of a Greek house, it violates the First Amendment for a government agency to selectively exclude only journalists.”

Contact staff reporter Mark Keierleber by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 123.