Dear President Speck,
The Student Press Law Center is a nonprofit advocate for student journalism, and is a center of research about the law governing the student media. The student editors of Missouri Southern State University’s campus newspaper, The chart, have contacted the SPLC about your University’s stepped-up enforcement of a policy issued in June 2008 that restricts journalists’
access to members of the University community.
The operative sentence of the policy instructs University employees as follows: “If a representative from the media (TV, radio, newspaper, or other medium) contacts you or arrives on campus to speak with you or students, please refer them first to University Relations & Marketing before providing information “ As we read this policy, it purports to require that any
media contact with any member of the University community — staff, faculty or student — must be routed through Missouri Southern’s University Relations and Marketing office. We understand that, since the enforcement of this policy began, you have yet to agree to speak directly with journalists from The Chart, despite several requests.
Of course, such a policy could not be literally enforced, as your administration appears to understand, since your spokesman has stated that the policy will not be enforced to penalize, for instance, an interview between a Missouri Southern faculty member and the media about a non- University matter. To the extent that the policy instead functions as a selective screening device — and that its purpose and effect is to obstruct access by The Chart to faculty, staff and administrators — it is questionable both legally and as a matter of sound public policy. It is not, in fact, standard protocol for a public university to require all employees to centrally clear or report their contacts with the media (let alone requests to interview students).
Some of the most significant news stories of our time resulted from whistle-blowing by public employees. A policy requiring pre-approval of communications with the press is effectively a “whistle-blower intimidation rule.” Government employees need the assurance that, in the rare instance when they encounter improprieties or safet hazards to which their agency is
responding inadequately, they can speak freely on such issues of public concern without fear of reprisal.
The best universities understand the importance of creating a climate in which controversial and even extreme and at times offensive ideas are allowed room to be tested in the marketplace. It sends a destructive message for the President’s Office to enforce a rule — with unspecified consequences for violators — that speech must be vetted for consistency with the
University’s P.R. image. You should not be surprised if the highest-achieving students and the most creative educators “vote with their feet” for an environment that is more hospitable to diversity of opinions.
It likewise is not accepted protocol for a college president to refuse to talk to his own campus newspaper. That is the mark of an institution attempting to insulate itself against scrutiny and to “spin” the news. We might expect that behavior from a soft-drink company, but not from a public agency that is supposed to be transparent. (Indeed, your spokesperson was quoted in the media as suggesting that the University’s policy is no different than what one might expect at the local electric company, which indicates a worrisome inability to distinguish between the obligations of a private, investor-owned corporation and a public agency.)
If it is your concern that you and the University be portrayed more favorably in the media, restricting journalists’ access is exactly the wrong strategy. The public officials who enjoy the most positive portrayal in the media are not those who freeze out journalists. Readers are not stupid. After seeing story after story of “no-comments,” they will readily conclude that the
administration has something to hide.
If it is your belief that the University has been the victim of inaccuracies in the media, then a policy of restricted access is again exactly the wrong strategy. The antidote to incorrect information is not less but more information. If you honestly believe that the University is better than is being depicted, then you should not fear allowing the public to see behind the curtain.
It is common for administrators to feel that they are entitled to expect a positive slant on the news in a medium that is financially supported by their University. But journalism is not Burger King — it’s a profession, and as with any profession, it comes with heightened obligations. When the University pays a professional auditing firm to audit its books, the
University expects the auditors — even though they are paid by the college — to exercise their best professional judgment and deliver an honest report, no matter how critical it is. If we understand that to be the case with auditing, then we must understand that to be true of journalism as well, A journalist’s highest obligation as a professional is not to the person who
signs the checks, but to the truth.
A college that makes policy with the goal of frustrating its student journalists gives new meaning to the term “short sighted.” It should be the University’s goal to see that all of its students — including those studying journalism — succeed in their careers. When a college intentionally obstructs students’ ability to do their journalistic work, it hampers their career development and their ability to compete for jobs. The students working for The Chart will be opinion leaders in your community and in your state. You must ask yourself whether it is really conducive to bettering the University’s image to send forth a class of alumni whose enduring memory of Missouri Southern is four years of hostility.
A University is an enormous collection of enterprises and personalities under a single umbrella, There undoubtedly will be times in the history of every institution when adverse publicity makes the school look bad. But a college that treats its employees and students with distrust, and elevates image control over transparency, does not merely “look bad” It is bad.
We hope that you will promptly rescind this enforcement directive and instead promote a climate of openness in which journalism at Missouri Southern is recognized for what it is — an award-winning program that brings credit to the University. No one is asking that you enjoy dealing with journalists, but it is neither consistent with your position as a high-ranking public
official, nor with the best interests of the University, for you to govern behind closed shutters.
It would go a long way toward promoting a healthier climate for you to reach out to the editors of The Chart and hold a clear-the-air meeting at which you may air whatever concerns you have about the way your administration has been portrayed in the newspaper. Any such meeting should be between your administration and the student editors directly, not the faculty
adviser, since an adviser at a public institution is forbidden by the First Amendment from dictating the content of a student newspaper.
Thank you for your willingness to reconsider this harmful policy. The Student Press Law Center will gladly assist in helping arrange a neutral discussion forum to bring together students and administrators so that each better understands the other’s perspective in this matter.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Student Press Law Center asks Speck to reconsider media policy
In a strongly worded, but respectful letter, Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center asked Missouri Southern State University President Bruce Speck to drop his new policy requiring all interviews with university administrators, faculty members, and students to go through the public relations office. The content of the letter is printed below: