Lawyer talks First Amendment rights at AACC


Brayden Nazarian

A legal opinion requested by Campus Current editors says AACC Athletics may be violating the First Amendment rights of its players and coaches.

Brayden Nazarian, Sports Editor

A lawyer for the Student Press Law Center said in November he believes AACC Athletics is violating the First Amendment rights of the college’s coaches and student athletes.

SPLC senior legal counsel Mike Hiestand detailed his opinion in a response to an inquiry from Campus Current Editor-in-Chief Amber Nathan and Associate Editor Christian Richey, who claimed coaches and players have told student journalists they may not grant interviews without permission from an Athletics administrator.

“I feel like they’re blocking their coaches and players from talking to us, which is a violation of their First Amendment right” to free speech, Nathan, a second-year communications student, said.

The First Amendment outlaws government institutions, such as public colleges, from quelling the speech of those in America.

“Any rule, regulation, policy or requirement that purports to be binding on college journalists or on college employees, requiring mandatory pre-approval before an employee may discuss work-related matters with the news media, violates the First Amendment and is legally unenforceable,” Hiestand wrote.

Men’s Soccer coach Nick Cosentino said Athletics has a policy  that requires requests for interviews with coaches and players to go through Assistant Athletic Director for Communications Hillary Fisher.

Cosentino said coaches are “technically not supposed to talk to [Campus Current reporters] until it gets OK’d by our assistant AD. … For instance, I think [a reporter for Campus Current] emailed me and I forwarded it to Hillary Fisher, and I said, ‘Hey, is it OK to talk with this guy?’ So that’s just the protocol [coaches and players are] supposed to follow.”

Women’s Soccer coach Karin Victorio said there could be consequences for “disobeying [my] boss.”

Fisher said coaches who choose to speak to reporters without going through channels are not punished.

She also said the practice is standard for college athletic departments.

“It’s standard practice for all interview requests to come through the communications office, and we practice that here,” Fisher told Campus Current.

But, Hiestand wrote, “Common does not mean legal. … ‘Everybody does it’ is not an explanation that your college would accept [from] its students, and it is not an explanation that the federal courts will accept, either.”

Athletics Director Duane Herr said once a reporter’s request comes in, his department works  quickly to connect reporters with athletes and coaches.

“It’s our intent that we connect student reporters to the coaches and athletes … as quickly as possible,” Herr said. “We understand the complexity of a student athlete’s workload. … Our coaches … have their own work schedules. I know in talking to some coaches, they want to confirm that who’s contacting them is legitimate.”

Women’s Basketball coach Lionel Makell said the practice began in response to  misinformation reported in past issues of Campus Current.

“It’s changed from the last couple of years,” Makell said. “Now, you have to go through [Fisher] to get permission, so she’s aware of who we’re speaking to and to make sure the right content is being moved forward. … I guess they’ve had problems in the past, where things were misprinted that we said, and they were taken out of context.”

Richey said Fisher refused to help him connect with a player and coach for a story last summer. “She said she wasn’t interested in the story,” Richey said. “So we couldn’t even talk to the student [athlete], which kind of impeded our progress in getting that story done. Because of that, we couldn’t finish the story.”

Nathan said contacting Fisher to interview coaches and players for stories sometimes makes the reporters’ jobs more difficult.

“We’re working on deadline; we don’t always have time to go through Hillary. … It’s really inconvenient and stressful for us,” Nathan said.

After contacting women’s lacrosse coach Jim Griffiths for the answer to a single follow-up question a few days after an approved interview, Richey said, the coach told him he needed approval from Fisher before he could speak with the journalist again.

“Policies broadly forbidding unauthorized communications with the news media are unlawful because they inhibit whistleblowing [and stop] employees or student-athletes from seeking help to remedy unsafe conditions,” Hiestand wrote.

Maryland’s New Voices Act, which the state adopted  in 2016, forbids administrators at public colleges and  high schools from restraining student journalists from publishing stories.

“We don’t have any problems with Hillary personally; we know she’s trying to do her job,” Richey explained. “But, to comply with the law, she has to let the players talk to us [and] let the coaches talk to us if they want to talk. … Based on interactions [with coaches] it seems like they’re not allowed to talk to us.”