SPJ President Paul Fletcher on First Amendment Rights

Only response to free-speech bullies: some muscle

In the cold, clear light of a second-day story, the words are still chilling:

“Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here!”

As most journalists in America now know, the woman who made that statement was Melissa Click, a communications professor at the University of Missouri, caught on a video that went viral.

The video, photographed by student Mark Shierbecker, documented, among other things, efforts by student photojournalist Tim Tai to cover student protesters at Mizzou; the video was shot after news that university system president Tim Wolfe had resigned. The journalists presumably were seeking comment and reaction to the resignation.

But come back to Click. She sought to shut down the student press in a way that was threatening. Some muscle? Really? Should Shierbecker have feared for his personal safety?

To their great credit, Shierbecker and Tai showed respect, resolution, calmness, professionalism and yes, courage, considering they were faced with an unhappy crowd chanting, “Hey hey ho ho, reporters have got to go!”

Click since has issued an apology for her actions, which Shierbecker said in a tweet that he did not accept. No doubt she is hoping that everyone, including the school she works for, will move on.

But should the rest of us let Click off easy? I don’t think so. There is a word for someone who treated the journalists the way she did: Bully.

She bullied Shierbecker, and the call for help to remove him forcibly is inexcusable and indefensible.

Since she was trying to shut down press coverage, call her a free speech bully, attempting to squelch a reporter.

Here is another reason not to let her off the hook: She’s not alone in higher education.

Within the past year, SPJ has tracked no fewer than six examples of journalism advisers at colleges across America who have run afoul of their schools’ leaders for (gasp!) encouraging student journalists to do their jobs and cover the school.

In each case, the administration would prefer that the student press run happy news, or perhaps recipes, instead of stories seeking to hold (often) public employees accountable.

In one of the adviser altercations, the school paper’s editor-in-chief provided his notes of his run-in with a high-level administrator. “Free speech bully” again would be the operative phrase. The encounter was intimidating and oppressive: the administrator was unhappy the paper had run articles about mold in university buildings.

Frank LoMonte runs the Student Press Law Center, and his job is to watch all this and to offer help and, if necessary, legal support.

In a Facebook post last weekend, LoMonte noted he had just returned from a visit to a public university where the student reporters are required to submit their interview questions for the university president in writing to a media-relations functionary.

This minion rewrites any questions that are unacceptably “negative” and sends back a script, to which the journalists are told to adhere under threat of unspecified reprisal, he said.

I asked him: At what university did this occur?

LoMonte demurred, citing the need to minimize harm (See SPJ Code of Ethics, section II). The students were so frightened that he would need to get their OK to out the school. I am not a fan of citing incidents without names, but I trust the source here.

It’s important to note that the people involved here are college kids, between ages 18 and 21. No doubt the students LoMonte dealt with are frightened.

All these incidents, showing a careless disregard for free speech and the free press, sound like something out of a tinpot dictatorship or some leftover totalitarian regime. Tendering questions for sanitation by a minion sounds like great job training for a position at George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth after graduation.

But these stories are happening at colleges in this country, one with a history and laws that protect free speech and a free press. These schools, if they bother to teach the Constitution, must be saying that it has only nine amendments…that first one got deleted somewhere along the way.

No student should face intimidation, threats of personal violence or reprisal – simply for doing his or her job as a journalist.

The only response, I think, to free speech bullies is some muscle.

Not sending goons out to do physical harm to anyone, but push-back. Exposure. Forceful calling out. Telling the tales. Litigation when needed. Financial support for those lawsuits. And a clear message that that is what they can expect.

Because when confronted, bullies fold and run.

This post was originally published on the blog of SPJ President Paul Fletcher


SPJ encourages members to stop S. 754

Dear SPJ Member,

SPJ joins the American Society of News Editors in asking its members to contact their senators – namely U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) — and ask them to vote “No” on S.754, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act. We are concerned the impact this legislation will have on transparency.

Below is an explanation of the bill, and its impact on FOIA and transparency, from the ASNE blog.

“CISA will add a new FOIA exemption (the first exemption since the bill was originally enacted). All ‘information shared with or provided to the Federal Government pursuant to the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act of 2015’ is exempt from disclosure under FOIA. This is true regardless of whether the information actually relates to a cybersecurity threat. It’s a loophole that will allow the federal government to withhold just about any and all information it receives from private sector topics on any subject, especially because private companies enjoy broad immunity when sharing this information with the government. This creates a particular concern for news media in that a private company could share information it has regarding a reporter (such as email or phone contacts or even contents of communications) without fear of immunity and with the reporter and/or his or her employer having no knowledge that the information was shared. The public would not have any oversight role in these ‘cybersecurity’ efforts, either.”

 We need U.S. Senators from Texas on board. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has been a long-time advocate for transparency and FOIA reform. Tell Sen. Cornyn to vote “No” on this bill. You may email him, call his Washington, D.C., office or an office nearest you, or contact him on Twitter, @JohnCornyn.

We also ask that you write letters to the editor to your local newspapers to help spread the word about the negative effects this bill would have on FOIA reform. Time is not on our side. A vote could be taken as early as this week. Fight for FOIA today!

Maggie LaMar
SPJ Communications Coordinator

Join us at the SPJ FW Summer Splash Social

When: Saturday, Aug. 1, 6-9 p.m.

Where:  The Yankee Cowboy Ranch (ette),1412 Penny Lane, Keller, TX, 76248 (Dave and Karen Lieber’s home)

Join us for Eddye Gallagher’s incredible beef brisket, grilling pork tenderloin with Buddy Jones, lots of side dishes, adult beverages and more!

Bring your swim suit and a towel if you want to swim!

Cost: $10 per person or a side dish to share (contact Kay Pirtle with what you will bring at pirtlemk@yahoo.com)

RSVP by July 29, so we will have enough food and drink for everyone

SPJ is against McKinney, Texas charging $79,000 for public record

INDIANAPOLIS— The Society of Professional Journalists is appalled that the city of McKinney, Texas, would charge more than $79,000 for public records requested by Gawker. SPJ stands with Gawker in its appeal, and encourages the city of McKinney to provide the information free of charge, or at least at a reasonable rate.
The request stems from a June 6 incident in which McKinney Police Officer Eric Casebolt pulled his gun on two unarmed teenagers at a neighborhood pool. Gawker reported on Monday that a few days after the incident, it submitted a public information request to the city asking to see Casebolt’s records and “any emails about his conduct sent or received by McKinney Police Department employees.”

According to the article, the city said it would take thousands of hours to produce the information in electronic format. Specifically, it would cost $63,583.50 for programming personnel to “execute an existing program or to create a new program so that requested information may be accessed and copied…”

“The amount that the city of McKinney is requiring Gawker to pay for the emails is absolutely absurd. This is an obvious tactic to dissuade requests for information about Casebolt. SPJ fully supports Gawker and its decision to appeal,” SPJ President Dana Neuts said.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit spj.org.

Dana Neuts, SPJ National President, 360-920-1737 (PDT), dneuts@spj.org
David Cuillier, SPJ FOI Committee Chair, 520-248-6242 (MST), spjdave@yahoo.com
Maggie LaMar, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-920-4785, mlamar@spj.org

Texas Governor Signs Law Protecting Reporting on Whistleblower Allegations

By Laura Lee Prather http://www.haynesboone.com/people/p/prather-laura.

Before the close of the legislative session, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has shown tremendous support for free speech and the rights of whistleblowers by signing Senate Bill 627 codifying a defense for the news media’s accurate reporting on third-party allegations. This defense had been common law in Texas for twenty-five years but was called into question in a recent Texas Supreme Court ruling. The enactment of SB 627 dispels any questions about the existence of such a defense and protects the longstanding need to allow the media to act as a watchdog through investigative reporting by informing the public about potential wrongdoing, and to do so without the fear reprisal if the allegation at issue later turns out to be false. Frequently the media is the first to uncover problems that are subsequently investigated and for which legislative reform is initiated, and it is important to preserve the media’s ability to perform this vital function in our democracy. Read more

12th annual First Amendment Awards and Scholarship Dinner

Fort Worth SPJ president Britney Tabor presents the chapter’s commemorative branding iron to keynote speaker Alfredo Corchado, The Dallas Morning News Mexico City bureau chief.

Fort Worth SPJ president Britney Tabor presents the chapter’s commemorative branding iron to keynote speaker Alfredo Corchado, The Dallas Morning News Mexico City bureau chief.

WFAA-TV’s Byron Harris, a Texas reporting icon and one of the most decorated broadcast journalists in the country, received Fort Worth SPJ’s Open Doors Award, the organization’s highest honor, at the 12th annual First Amendment Awards and Scholarship Dinner, April 17, 2015, at Cacharel in Arlington, Texas.The chapter also distributed $17,500 to 10 students who are either from Texas or attending school in Texas. Providing scholarships dates to the chapter’s early days in the 1940s. Since 2000 alone, $256,000 has been handed out.

Harris holds two Peabody Awards, four national Edward R. Murrow Awards, and three Gerald Loeb Awards for distinguished business reporting. Last year, he won his sixth duPont-Columbia Award — the broadcast equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize — for exposing fraud in Texas’ Medicaid dental system.Harris was the first U.S. reporter to refuse to surrender his camera at Area 51, the government’s secret military installation in Nevada. He was arrested and released, then filed a story about classified aircraft sightings all along the West Coast. He has reported from war zones and filed numerous stories from Russia. He chronicled the abuses that led to the savings and loan crisis in the 1980s.

He joins previous Open Doors recipients Brett Shipp, WFAA-TV; Betty Brink, Fort Worth Weekly; the WFAA-TV team of Mark Smith, Billy Bryant, Brett Shipp and Byron Harris; Dan Malone at Tarleton State University; Craig Flournoy, Southern Methodist University; Jennifer Autrey when she was with the Star-Telegram; Hadassah Schloss in the Texas Attorney General’s Office; Ralph Langer with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas; Diane Wilson, author of “An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas”; and Jennifer Peebles when she was with Texas Watchdog. Read more