ACLU to OU: Lift gag order on student-athletes

Oakland University has yet to respond to a letter from the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that indicates OU’s policy of preventing current players from speaking to the media about Beckie Francis may be unconstitutional.

The ACLU sent a letter to Interim President Betty Youngblood and Athletic Director Tracy Huth Sept. 12. More than a month later, there has been no reply, according to the organization’s staff attorney, Brooke Tucker. 

Requests for comment on the letter were sent by The Post to Youngblood as well as the Director of Athletic Communications Scott MacDonald, Vice President for Legal Affairs and General Counsel Vic Zambardi and the Assistant Director of Media Relations David Groves.

None responded.

But Tucker is hopeful that a response will be forthcoming.

“We remain hopeful that no further action will be necessary, that given the recent incidence where lack of transparency has allowed abuse and suffering by players to continue for long periods of time that Oakland University will decide the best thing to protect their players and protect other students … is to be transparent,” Tucker said. 

 The ACLU is not taking other options off the table, but Tucker said the organization remains “hopeful that OU will take action based on our request.”


The letter

The four-page letter, which can be read on The Oakland Post’s website, described Francis’ alleged discriminatory behavior against her players as a matter of “intense public concern,” in light of the Rutgers basketball coach who was recently fired for physically and mentally abusing his players. 

“We believe that transparency and openness about past transgressions, if any, can lead to positive change where future instances of abuse are less likely,” the letter read.

The letter also cited several cases, protecting the First Amendment. One such case, Healy v. James, ruled that “state colleges and universities are not … immune from the sweep of the First Amendment.”

Oakland Athletics has a policy in place that requires students and employees to gain permission from the Communications Director, Scott MacDonald, before talking to the media.

“All interview requests of any student-athletes or athletics staff go through my office,” MacDonald said.

In its letter, the ACLU said this practice at Oakland “has in essence created a limited public forum.”

Jane Briggs-Bunting, a media attorney and president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government,  said she believes the ACLU presented a good argument for information to be disclosed to media outlets, like The Oakland Post.

“I absolutely agree that gagging OU athletes and/or threatening them with some sort of reprisal if they speak to the media about Coach Francis, her termination, her coaching style or that of her successor is a clear violation of the First Amendment’s free speech provisions, and the U.S. Supreme Court, in a series of decisions, supports this position,” Briggs-Bunting said. 

“Despite that, I suspect OU will continue to “encourage’ students not to respond and will claim the university is not preventing them from talking,” she said.

You can read the letter here.