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Legal Experts: Teams Not Able to Suppress Athletes' Freedom of Speech

15 Dec, 2014

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Interview Guidelines, Social Media Policies May Have Legal Limitations

You talk, you walk? Maybe not. Although a number of teams, as well as schools, athletic programs and more have either (a) forbidden athletes to discuss issues on social media, or (b) given them guidelines regarding their behavior in interviews, legal experts are now saying it’s illegal to try to censor athletes’ speech.

Kansas State University, for example, has printed materials alerting athletes that they are not allowed to take part in media interviews unless they have been approved and scheduled by a member of the communications staff or a head coach. When they do speak to reporters, athletes are instructed to speak of the school, their teammates and coaches in a positive light.

However, in an article published in The Topeka Capital-Journal, Kansas State University’s policies were noted by ACLU lawyers to be at odds with freedom of speech.

 “If they’re not employees, they’re students,” says Doug Bonney, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas. “And students have First Amendment rights. “The university has no business telling their students who they can and can’t talk to.”

It’s not the first time schools and legal experts have faced off. In September, UNC’s student newspaper, The Daily Tarheel, discussed the problems with social media policies facing student athletes.

According to the article, UNC student-athletes are required to adhere to policies set forth by the NCAA, the UNC Department of Athletics and their teams in regard to what they can and cannot post online. Their speech online is monitored by a team representative and Varsity Monitor, a private company. Policies have ranged from not allowing players to post more than 10 Facebook photos, a softball team policy, to not having a negative attitude, which is a women’s basketball team rule.

Steve Kirschner, spokesman for the UNC Department of Athletics, said student-athletes are held to a different standard because they are highly visible in the public. However, Student Press Law Center Director Frank Lomonte said that argument does not hold up legally.

Sometimes, though, setting policies in place just arises from the need to establish priorities. U Penn’s basketball team set its own ‘no social media’ rule before the season began. Coach Jerome Allen proposed the idea, and guard Tony Hicks was quick to convince other players. Hicks’ thought the measure not only enabled the players to focus on their game more thoroughly, but also “shut out the outside noise.”

College students are one thing. Underage athletes pose an entirely different set of problems. The behavior of under-18 athletes often falls under the auspices of their parents, although many organizations have instituted their own set of rules.

Little League Baseball, for example, has set up a set of guidelines regarding social media; however, these generally encourage each local Little League organization to exercise “appropriate control” of posting, images and so forth. A separate document discusses media-specific issues. Ultimately, a local organization who repeatedly and flagrantly violates policies may be subject to having their charter suspended or revoked.

Many organizations are stepping up their policing of social media sites to cut back on cyber-bullying and other problems. Others are simply looking for ways to limit their exposure. But as each week seems to bring another Tweet, another Facebook post or another Snapchat photo that causes concerns for parents, coaches and more, it’s likely the issue is an evolution in progress.

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