Security Staff Questions Right to Free Speech
Memo Sparks Anger and Debate At Security Unionby Nick Stillman
It seems as if the saga between management and staff at Oberlin's Department of Safety and Security will not end anytime soon. An article in last week's Review reported that Security Director Keith James had implemented a policy in an April 10 memorandum restricting his employees from contacting the media without first consulting him. The language of Section D of the policy statement reads, "Safety and Security employee [sic] will not give any statement or information to the news media unless authorized to do so by the Director of Safety and Security or his/her designee."
Although Director of Human Resources Ruth Spencer defended James in the April 28 Review, saying, "He [James] is not trying to inhibit officers," President of Oberlin's Security Union Christine Groff stated that James' policy places fundamental restrictions on officers' rights to freely express themselves.
Referring to Jane McCarthy's disciplinary meeting following her submission of an April 7 letter to the Review in which she detailed the "state of mistrust" within the department, Groff said she asked James whether or not he thought he "had control" over McCarthy. "Yes, I do," James allegedly responded.
James claimed that the April 10 document simply constituted a clarification of an already extant media policy within the Security department. However, Groff said, "If I wrote a letter saying Keith James was the best director, there would be no retaliation. Because someone was criticizing his management styles, he gets defensive."
Also, Groff noted a curiosity regarding the April 10 date of James' memorandum. She described how at McCarthy's April 11 disciplinary meeting she had requested to see a copy of James' media policy. When James produced it for her, it was dated April 10. Groff suspects that he backdated it so as to claim its prior existence.
James was unavailable for comment.
In Section G of his April 10 media policy statement James also expresses concern over the release of confidential information to the public. The section reads, "Safety and Security employees will not disclose, to anyone outside the Safety and Security office, the sources of confidential information..." However, Groff pointed out the unnecessary nature of including something so obvious to security officers in the statement.
"Everyone in the department is intelligent and responsible enough not to divulge information confidential to the department, but this isn't anything involving that." She warned that attempts to contact officers would be fruitless, due to their inability to speak to the media.
Groff's concern lies in her belief that James' policy fundamentally prohibits the security officers' First Amendment right of freedom of speech. "Jane knew she was taking a chance in writing the letter, but she also knows she is a citizen of the United States with a Constitutional right to freedom of speech. There's no freedom in that department," she said.
Moreover, Groff asserted that a policy that restricts a member of the Oberlin community from self-expression contradicts the Oberlin aesthetic. "Oberlin is all about freedom of expression and speech - I shouldn't be stopped as an individual from speaking on behalf of myself."
The next step for Groff and the Security Union is to combat James' media policy at the next labor management meeting, which will likely not take place until finals have ended. "We're hoping to discuss policy and union issues and to ask the College to retract part of Section E of the policy - if they don't do that I would imagine we'll explore our options. The union is trying to work with the College and give them the opportunity to make sure employee rights aren't violated," Groff said. The portion of Section E Groff referred to reads, "Under no circumstances will an employee of the Safety and Security office directly or indirectly communicate to the news media any information which might undermine the operations or administration of the department."
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