How much trouble can free be?

Seven years ago this month, Florida Atlantic University fired me as the adviser of its student newspaper. But the University Press staff wanted me to stay, so I’ve been volunteering since 2010.

I think I might be fired again.

On Friday, FAU told me I must register as a volunteer. Administrators have created a new policy that, among other things, requires a background check. I think that’s a good idea, actually. I speak at high schools and have agreed to background checks to prove I’m not a predator, murderer, or plagiarizer.

It’s the “among other things” that’s weird and worrisome.

I don’t mind the rule banning volunteers from “operating University-owned watercraft.” Or even the waiver I must sign acknowledging “potential risks and hazards…including, but not limited to, possible injury or loss of life.” But…

There are five rules I don’t like.

At least one isn’t legal.

First, the new rules say administrators will decide if I can offer free advice, not the students. An “applicable departmental supervisor” will determine “the suitability of the volunteer.”

Second, if administrators give me their blessing, they can assign me “specific tasks and/or duties to be performed and relevant training if necessary.”

Third – and this is just silly – the waiver demands, “I agree to keep all University records and files confidential.“ FAU is a public university. Most of its records are open to the public.

Fourth, and this is just creepy…

I give the University the right and permission to record my participation and appearance on videotape, audiotape, film, photography or any other medium and to use my name, likeness, voice and biographical information in connection with these recordings. The University may exhibit or distribute all or any part of these recordings for any educational or promotional purpose that the University and its employees deem appropriate. All such recordings shall be the University’s property.

Fifth, an administrator emailed me Friday and warned, “you may not provide volunteer service on campus or to our students prior to completing this process.”

The scariest part is “or.”

Apparently, I can’t advise either on campus “or to our students.” Does that mean I can’t meet students even off campus? I’ve been down this road before.

After I got fired in May 2010, and after I began volunteering, FAU told the student editor she couldn’t meet me “on or off campus for the purpose of advising.”

To quote attorney Adam Goldstein from the Student Press Law Center in Washington, DC, “Is this really the hill they want to die on?” Turns out it wasn’t. After letters from the Society of Professional Journalists and College Media Association, FAU backed down.

Maybe they’re trying again. Of course, the question is: Why now?

Over the past two decades I’ve been either a paid or volunteer adviser, FAU usually tries to get rid of me after I do something it doesn’t like. Last month, that was urging the newly elected editor to fight Student Government’s refusal to let him do his job. I wrote about that twisted situation and quoted the Student Press Law Center calling it “horrible.”

Maybe that’s just a coincidence. Regardless, I signed the forms FAU sent me, but I crossed out the sections I found offensive and insulting. I also stated I believe the students have the right to ask my advice anytime and anywhere.

So does the Student Press Law Center. Executive director Frank LoMonte says…

I don’t see how they can tell a student organization “you are limited in who you can invite AT NO UNIVERSITY EXPENSE to speak to you and that person can only say what the department head approves him saying.”

This Friday, I’ll be a volunteer outlaw.

I’ll once again visit the student newsroom and talk journalism with college students. To skirt the rules, the editors are submitting a separate set of forms that call me a “guest speaker” – because FAU’s new policy specifically excludes guests speakers from these weird rules.

I can only wonder what FAU will say about that. I really wonder what they’ll do about it.

I suppose campus police could arrest me for trespassing. That would make for a fascinating holding-cell conversation…

“What are you in for, old man?”

“Advising a student newspaper for free.”

I’ll find out in a few days.