Not All Controls of Information Are Legal…All Are Bad.

It’s nice that the journalistic community is starting to speak with one voice about the insidious growth of non-legal forms of coercion being practiced with increasing impunity across the American landscape. Kudos to the New York Times for sounding the alarm about the growing boldness of PIOs and public relations “handlers” censoring the news.

It’s not just “quote checks,” however: PR handlers demanding that public officials route all incoming calls to them and forbidding governmental employees from even speaking to reporters unless they are “cleared” are at least as bad, and do untold damage daily to our knowledge of public affairs. SPJ is working with a group dedicated to fighting back against this development. More to come.

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Oh, The Flacks, The Obstacles They Throw Up….

A major shout-out to my co-blogger and co-author, Dave Cuillier, for this fantastic study…and thanks to the good folks at the Society of Environmental Journalists for the tip!

We’ve all felt that the obstacles that government PIO “minders” throw up have been growing in number and intensity, and now a study by SPJ proves it…it is a fascinating look at the barriers reporters face in the form of government controls.

SPJ commissioned work by survey research professionals canvassing 776 newsgatherers (of whom 146 completed the survey) during January-February 2012. Here are some of the findings:

— “Pre-approval: Three-quarters reported that they have to get approval from public affairs officers before interviewing an agency employee (a third said that occurs all of the time and 45 percent some of the time).”

— “Prohibition: About half the reporters said agencies outright prohibit reporters from interviewing agency employees altogether at least some of the time, and 18 percent said it happens most of the time.”

— “Routing: Seven out of 10 reporters say their requests for interviews are forwarded to public affairs officers for selective routing to whomever they want.”

— “Monitoring: About 16 percent of the reporters said their interviews are monitored in person or over the telephone all the time, a third said it happens most of the time and another third said it happens some of the time.”

See the full report, “Mediated Access: Journalists’ Perceptions Of Federal Public Information Officer Media Control,” Society of Professional Journalists, March 12, 2012, by Carolyn Carlson, David Cuillier, and Lindsey Tulkoff, here.

Irony Alert! Georgia Lawmakers Close Hearing…on Sunshine Reform!

Because Georgia lawmakers are catching a ton of flak after a witness who equated domestic partner benefits with the End Times apparently has…well, received some less-than-flattering response, the organizers of a hearing aimed at making government more open (?) closed a hearing and banned video coverage. Seriously.

Before voting Monday to advance an overhaul of the state’s open government law, a House subcommittee voted to banish the taking of photographs and video from the hearing.

Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, made the motion, saying that video taken at a prior hearing had been put on the Internet and used to harass a witness.

Willard later identified the witness as Tanya Ditty, state director of Concerned Women for America, who testified in opposition to House Bill 630, which would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals from discrimination in the public workplace.

Ditty said one reason her group opposed HB 630 is that it would extend the same protections to a variety of sexual orientations, including pedophilia and necrophilia.

After the hearing, Wendell said he cherishes the right to free speech and said the Judiciary Committee will hear testimony from any witness, regardless of his or her opinions and positions. But he said he was upset at what happened with Ditty’s testimony going viral on the Internet.

“This seemed to me to be more about intimidating people,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”

At the hearing, Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, said those taking videos of witnesses needed to act responsibly. But he said he opposed Willard’s motion because it infringed on the freedom of the press.

“We do have a Constitution … and that kind of interferes with that,” Bruce said of the motion.

If you choose to appear at a public legislative hearing and make your group’s views extremely public, then, to paraphrase the United States Supreme Court, you have thrust yourself into the vortex of public opinion…shame on the pols for a cowardly reaction to a perfectly predictable response.

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Illinois Moves to Legalize WHat Already Ought to Be a No-Brainer: Recording Police at Work

Illinoisans would be allowed to make recordings of police officers in public under a bill that an Illinois House committee approved Wednesday.

Existing state law allows the audiotaping of a person only if both parties to the conversation give their consent. Videotaping doesn’t require consent, but only if there is no audio with the video.

The bill, HB 3944, now goes to the full House. It would allow “recording of a peace officer who is performing a public duty in a public place and speaking at a volume audible to the unassisted human ear.”

Most states allow audio recording of conversations with one-party consent — when any participant in a conversation gives consent to record it. A handful of states require consent from both parties to the conversation. Illinois requires consent from all parties to the conversation.

The Illinois law allows video recording with the sound turned off, as well as the audio recording of a distant event where the voices are not audible.

The Illinois law also has an exemption for news broadcasts. But with the Internet and blogs and YouTube, the line between citizens and journalists is blurring. And footage from citizens’ cellphones often ends up on the websites and broadcasts of large news organizations.

The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police doesn’t necessarily oppose a change to let people record police activity, but it wants changes of their own, said the group’s lobbyist, Laimutis Nargelenas.

This Hassle-the-Photographer Crapola Is Getting Old…

Not really FOI, but hey, this is getting downright ridiculous:

A Las Vegas police officer detained a man for refusing to walk away after taking a photo of a movie set that was completely visible to the public.

The man video recorded his interaction, which doesn’t show the officer’s face or name, but allows us to clearly hear him trying to justify giving the photographeran unlawful order.

The photographer whose username is 1willwanders on Youtube, held his ground, asking the officer to cite him the law that would allow him to single out a person for taking photos on a public street, ordering him to walk away while countless other people are allowed to remain because they are not taking photos.

The officer was unable to do so. The photographer was allowed to walk away after more than two minutes of debating with the cop.

Photo of a police officer, Boston, USA

Image via Wikipedia

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PR apparatchiks running wild in Washington…

Kathryn Foxhall is a one-woman army. Her blog, PR Office Censorship, is a fresh source of outrage, compiling incident after incident of government minders straight out of a bad Banana Republic…

Her latest?

The Department of Health and Human Services last week released a media policywhich makes it official that staff members and reporters are forbidden to speak to each other without reporting to public information officers and supervisors.
Although over the last 10-20 years HHS and many of its agencies have prohibited staff members not to speak to reporters without PIO oversight, this is apparently the first time in history the agency has put it in writing.
The policy says, “In order to make certain we provide the media the best possible service and information in a timely fashion, it is important that the relevant agency public affairs office be notified of all media calls/contacts that employees receive about their HHS work.”
It further says, “When approached by a reporter, HHS employees should work with their immediate supervisor and coordinate with the appropriate public affairs office/personnel in their agency.”
This, folks, is ridiculous, and Foxhall is organizing a long-overdue pushback. Subscribe to her blog today and start fighting back.

Trickle-down Fascism, Coming To A Town Near You

A badge of a police dog within the New York Po...

Image via Wikipedia

From my friends at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:

A New York police officer arrested a freelance photojournalist Friday after he attempted to film a police scene on a public street, outraging First Amendment and civil liberties advocates. The department has since said it plans to drop the charge.

Suffolk County police charged cameraman Phil Datz, of the Long Island-based Stringer News Service, for “obstruction of governmental administration” after he filmed police on the side of the road arresting suspects who had allegedly led officers on a police chase in Bohemia.

The interaction between Datz and the officer who arrested him was caught on tape andposted to YouTube.

Footage shows a sergeant approaching Datz and yelling at him repeatedly to “go away, go away now.” Datz asked the officer how far he should move back, and the officer told him he needed to leave the scene entirely. The video then shows the officer grabbing Datz’s press badge, asking his name and saying: “I want you to go away and not stand here and argue with me, otherwise you’re about going to be locked up.”

The video then shows the officer continuously yelling at Datz to leave. When Datz asked why, the officer said “because it’s a current investigation” and “an active scene.”

“You understand I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and there’s nothing you can hold over my head,” the officer said.

The video then shows Datz returning to his car and moving more than a block away from the scene to continue filming. Members of the public, including children, were allowed to stand near the police scene.

Once Datz was spotted further away, the police officer sped toward him in his patrol car. The video shows Datz quickly try to explain that he called the police department’s public information office, but before he can finish his sentence, the officer orders him to put his camera down and informs him that he is under arrest.

“The street was open to the public. There were cars driving up and down the street, there were kids walking past the scene,” Datz told New York radio station WINS. “The sergeant had to get in his vehicle to drive down to me because I was so far away.”

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Quite possibly not what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they talked democracy…

Bricks in a wall.

Image via Wikipedia

This story is just crazy awesome. Seems the Regents at Rutgers had a crowd fairly upset with them the other night over, well, I don’t know…an issue of university import. So their response? They built a wall between themselves and the crowd!

I would have given anything to be at that meeting…and I so hope that other university administrators are not taking notes.


My favorite section:

“I don’t know how you conduct a meeting with people shouting at you,” he said.

Yeah, I have no idea…wait…what if you let the students and faculty speak?

Three members of the press, including a reporter from The Star-Ledger, were allowed to remain inside the meeting room before it was sealed.

So, what was it like to be in the little meeting bubble? This is simply the greatest Sunshine Law violation in the history of mankind…



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News From Myanmar…er…Pennsylvania. Trickle-down Fascism Alert…

Not an FOI-related post, but I’d like to also use this space from time to time to highlight what I like to call “trickle-down fascism”: the inexorable creep of authoritarian tin-pot dictators in offices large and small across this great land. Consider it my occasional foray into the absurd. Today’s Banana Republic Moment is brought to you by the Allentown, Pa., school board:

For more than three hours on March 31 the Allentown School Board let children, parents, taxpayers and employees voice their opinions — all negative — on Superintendent Gerald Zahorchak’s plan to cut 247 teaching jobs and 85 courses next school year.

The next school board meeting shouldn’t be nearly as long.

It’s not just because the school board has approved the cuts contained in Zahorchak’s new Program of Studies, but because one group has been ordered to keep negative comments to themselves: teachers.

It seems the powers-that-be in Allentown would like all those fussy teachers to toe the line and swallow policies they find repugnant, all in the interests of appearing to agree with them.

In an email to district principals for distribution to staff, Deputy Superintendent Russ Mayo issued a five-point reminder that employees could be disciplined if they are “making public statements that are inconsistent with district policies and that could serve to harm the effectiveness of district programs.”

In other words, silence! This is trickle-down fascism at its finest: a public official trampling on the rights of public employees in the name of state-enforced orthodoxy. It is profoundly un-American, and these officials should be ridden out of office on a rail. If and when citizens simply refuse to abide by such heavy-handed tactics, our civic life will improve markedly.


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