Robert Leger, President, 417/ 836-1113 or cell 417/ 425-9140 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Charles N. Davis, FOI Committee Co-Chairman, 573/ 882-5736 or email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- Efforts by the City of Chesapeake, Va., to centralize and pre-approve all contacts with news reporters poorly serve constituents by stifling dissent and impeding the flow of information to the public, the Society of Professional Journalists says.
In a Jan. 10, 2003, memo by the city’s manager, city employees are ordered to refer all media requests for information through the city’s Public Communications Department. In addition, any city employee who discusses any issue deemed by the city to be non-routine must file a summary outlining the issues discussed, a synopsis of the questions asked and the answers provided. If at any time the conversation between the employee and the reporter “evolves into areas of controversial or sensitive issues,” the employee “should stop the interview and refer the reporter to the Public Communications Department.”
The memo goes on to state that “it should be understood that stopping the interview at this point is not intended in any way to hinder the process, but rather to ensure that the most coordinated response is provided to the reporter.”
The memo continues: “If asked by a news reporter to give an opinion about particular issues or programs, City employees should explain that giving personal opinions on behalf of the City is not appropriate or part of their responsibility. It is, therefore, advisable to decline comment and offer to direct the news to the Public Communications Department.”
A March 18, 2003, memo takes the policy even further, defining “basic” and “advanced” information along lines of sensitivity: “Advanced information is information which deals with City policy, budget, potentially controversial subjects, ongoing or potential litigation...” The memo orders employees to take all such requests to their supervisor for referral to the Public Communications Department.
The Chesapeake policy represents a dangerous new trend in public administration: the centralization of communication in an obvious attempt to institute “message discipline” among public employees. Such a policy hampers the effective flow of information from governments to the governed, substituting “official” government positions for the free speech essential to democratic governance.
“A carefully controlled message may make a city manager’s or mayor’s job more secure, but it does nothing for the security of citizens,” said Robert Leger, president of SPJ. “Is their tax money being spent well? Are city employees working efficiently? Are city policies applied the same to the powerful as to the weak? Any policy that threatens city employees with being fired for speaking the truth is an insult to the First Amendment and to the citizens the city government is supposed to serve.”
Most importantly, centralized control of the statements of public officials ignores the role of the executive office in a democratic government. Public employees have a First Amendment right to speak to the news media about newsworthy public issues – a right that cannot be restricted absent a compelling interest. SPJ sees no such compelling interest in this instance – only a desire by the city to restrict the flow of information to the people.
Under such a policy, no member of the city government could say a word to the press about the most important issues facing the city of Chesapeake without approval from City Hall, a measure sure to stifle legitimate dissent and narrow the range of stories to those deemed safe for public consumption.
“What if city employees are upset with the ‘official’ government position?” asked Charles N. Davis, co-chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee and executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “The city’s policy sends a chilling message to city employees and replaces the robust public debate guaranteed by the First Amendment with a public relations gimmick designed to ensure that the city speaks with one voice on issues with more than one legitimate viewpoint.”
SPJ urges the city of Chesapeake to revisit its policy in the interest of free speech. Employees should be free to speak to the news media about the issues of the day free from the chilling effect of Public Communications Department regulations. Public employees work for the citizenry, not bureaucrats in City Hall. SPJ urges the city to revisit this interventionist policy with the goal of facilitating, rather than hindering, the flow of information to constituents.