Confidentiality agreement will affect The Echo if the editorial staff has to sign

Carrollyne Aasen & Olivia Larson, Editor in Chief & Managing Editor and Copy Editor

Editor’s note: This article was endorsed by The Echo editorial staff. 

Previously, The Echo published an article about the new student-worker confidentiality agreement, a legal document often referred to as a non-disclosure agreement, that will be put into place moving forward when hiring student employees. As student employees, this agreement, if enforced for The Echo editorial staff to sign, will impede the publication’s ability to speak to sources and relay information, also known as reporting.

The confidentiality agreement is reasonable when discussing departments in which students are interacting with academic, financial and operational materials and information, as Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Melinda Roper said in an email interview with an Echo reporter for the initial article. However, as of now, this would be across the board for all student employees, some of whom may not encounter this kind of sensitive information.

When completing initial employment paperwork, student employees must already sign a Student Employment Personnel Action form, which includes a confidentiality clause. Because of this being included in the initial paperwork, it is unclear why this additional confidentiality agreement was implemented, especially without other departments, such as Student Employment, being consulted. The confidentiality agreement lacks a detailed definition of what “all information relating to California Lutheran University’s business or operation” entails.

Roper said this would depend on the department; however, unless a new draft is written for each department when the student is signing this, it is not included what this information encompasses. Additionally, this agreement does not include what is not covered under the agreement and how the employee is meant to keep the information confidential or from whom.

While it would be hard to enforce, Roper said that violations could lead to legal ramifications. It is unclear if it would be the university pursuing these legal ramifications or if it would become a federal matter, such as with what falls under a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act violation.

In the initial Echo article, the reporter spoke to a senior legal counsel of Student Press Law Center, Mike Hiestand, who said that this agreement, if enforced, would “prevent students from doing their jobs in relation to student media” and it is “more than just censorship, they are ‘gag orders.’”

Censorship and gag orders are a way to cause a “chilling effect,” meaning those reporting and those giving information will withhold out of fear, seeing as the agreement extends past the student’s time employed and time at the university as a whole.

Many of the topical articles published by The Echo begin as casual, one-off conversations editors and reporters have heard around campus. These ideas develop into assignments the editorial staff or reporters continue with. However, under this agreement, it infers that information gathered this way cannot be used to develop a story, like inquiring for further details on the record and by official sources.

With repercussions looming over the publication’s head, a real fear of a chilling effect develops, resulting in the publication bypassing covering larger articles and stories–especially ones the university may not like.

Additionally, Roper said that, after a conversation with their supervisor about the questions or concerns they have about the agreement, if the student does not feel comfortable signing, “it may be the case that a different position might be a better fit.”

It is unclear what this “better fit” would mean for the publication, given that different or alternative positions do not exist, and because of the vagueness and overbroad nature of the confidentiality agreement, it is unclear how this will affect reporters for The Echo and El Eco, who can be student workers for various departments on campus.

Upping student worker hours and opportunities for employment were implemented to improve retention, seeing as “on average, over 95% of first-year students who participate in student employment at CLU are retained into their second year,” according to the university’s website, but if a student or students do not find this “better fit” Roper spoke of, would this still be the case?

If it was decided that a student could not be a reporter and a student worker, this would seriously impact the publication and individual students as they would be forced to choose between their interests, their degree and the money they need. For some editors and reporters, the money they earn as a student-worker does not solely contribute to their books or tuition to attend the university, but also to buy groceries, car payments or maintenance, gas and other essentials. Forcing the students to choose between one or the other would affect their finances as well as their mental health.

Additionally, Roper, in the initial article, included examples of sports strategies and student researchers working with faculty to explain what confidential information could include. Student researchers, for the most part, are not paid and are not considered student employees, which provides an odd example to put under the umbrella of what this confidentiality agreement covers.

Because of efforts to create more collaboration between the different emphases in the Communication Department and across the other disciplines, the overlap between reporter and/or student media and the confidentiality agreement could extend into other areas. This would impact the student experiential learning via specific classes that seek to closely align with what they might be doing once they graduate, such as other student media like the broadcasting classes, the podcasting class and iCLU radio, and it could impact other types of classes, such nonfiction writing.

This then leads one to question if this agreement could surpass student workers.

Due to the confidentiality agreement’s lack of a non-disparagement clause, student workers may feel that they cannot report discrimination, harassment, etc. to not only the publication but at all.

For the sensitive information the university wants to protect, a possible solution is updating applicable departments’ and/or position types’ Student Employment Personnel Action form to fit their needs and concerns.

Implementing such a confidentiality agreement at such a scale, one that would dismantle the freedom and integrity of a university press in the epicenter for journalism that is California would be a great mishandling of opportunity, bordering on unlawful and unjust.