Fraternity policy limits media access to members at Penn State

Interfraternity Council plans to 'clarify' language, says policy not intended to restrict free speech

PENNSYLVANIA -- The editor in chief at Pennsylvania State University's student paper says a new Interfraternity Council media policy is preventing reporters from covering major campus events and restricting the paper's access to about 2,500 fraternity members.

The IFC "public relations policy," which was approved by the presidents of member fraternities, says all fraternity members must seek approval from the executive board before they can comment to the press.

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

IFC President Abe Gitterman sent an e-mail to fraternity members last week telling them to "NOT under any circumstances talk to the Daily Collegian about anything," 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 the Collegian Web site, Gitterman said anyone who talks to the Collegian without consent from the executive board "will be held accountable by the Vice President of Standards."

"He seems to think that fraternities are portrayed very negatively in the press," Lash said. "His response to that was to put the system on lockdown."

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

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

"The IFC has no intent to hold student members and/or their chapters accountable if they choose to exercise their freedom of speech rights," Ford said in the e-mail. "It was created to help inform the members on correct and proper methods of communicating to media outlets."

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

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

"The policy is simply saying, when there's a crisis ... there should be a coordinated response from the IFC instead of random students making comments," Baker said. "It's unfortunate that the IFC president basically threatened the members 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 that will be printed in the Daily Collegian or any publication, including but not limited 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 exercise government powers from limiting free speech. Although the IFC is a student organization that has been given authority by the university to govern the fraternities on campus, it is still a close call on whether the IFC policy is an illegal restriction on free speech, said Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center.

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

If the group is given the authority to perform a function that the university would otherwise have to perform, then the claim that it violates speech rights is stronger, Hiestand said. One would have to show the connection between the Penn State Board of Trustees, the IFC, and the powers "officially delegated" to them, he said.

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

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

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