Monday, August 3, 2020

Stop the Silencing of Police Officers

Society of Professional Journalists ̶ D.C. Chapter
Calls for an End to Restrictions on Officers’ Freedom to Talk to Reporters

The Washington, D.C., Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has called on Congress to ensure that police reform measures include that police officers and others in law enforcement have the freedom to communicate to the press.

The group calls for an end to the prohibitions in some police departments against officers or other staff speaking to reporters or speaking to reporters without reporting to authorities, such as public information officers.

A 2016 survey sponsored by SPJ, the chapter’s parent organization, found that over 23% of police reporters have said that all or most of the time they have been prevented by a PIO from interviewing officers or investigators at all.

“Such blatant monitoring and repression of speech critically limits everyone’s understanding of institutions and will enable abuse. We make this special appeal to Congress to ensure such rules that silence police officers not be allowed to encumber reform,” says the letter.

The letter is below. It has been sent to the offices of:

Rep. Jerry Nadler, Chair, House Judiciary Committee
Rep. Jim Jordan, Ranking Member, House Judiciary Committee
Senator Lindsey Graham, Chair, Senate Judiciary Committee
Senator Dianne Feinstein, Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee
Senator Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader
Senator Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Leader
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, House Minority Leader

Chairman Jerry Nadler:

With Congress considering police reform measures, we urge you to take action to ensure that police reform includes the elimination of rules that silence police officers from speaking to the press.

The Washington, D.C., Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists wants to stress that any police reform must eliminate the prohibitions, common in many jurisdictions, on police officers ever speaking to reporters except under the oversight of authorities, often public information officers.

Police reform will be severely hampered or ineffective if it does not do away with the secrecy such controls create.

Please note that an extensive legal analysis by a prominent First Amendment attorney recently concluded such policies in public agencies are unconstitutional and many courts have said so.

Surveys sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, our parent organization, found that over half of police reporters say they can rarely or never interview a police officer without involving a department’s public information officer.

Over 23% of police reporters said that all or most of the time, they have been prevented by a PIO from interviewing officers or investigators at all. A total of 57% said that blockage happened at least some of the time.

Over the last two to three decades, there has been a surge of policies in many types of organizations prohibiting employees from speaking to reporters without the controls, to the point it’s a cultural norm. It even occurs in congressional offices.

SPJ has called the restrictions censorship and authoritarian.

Now this culture of censorship appears to be paying some dark dividends. The current narrative is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s fumbles with COVID-19 may have cost tens of thousands lives. It could have been predicted that an agency shielding itself from public scrutiny would develop problems. CDC has an authoritarian media policy posted right on its website. It’s been many years since reporters could usually talk to agency staff without the PIO/censors. Often reporters can’t talk to agency staff at all.

In SPJ’s survey, some police PIOs said they monitor interviews so that the conversations, “stay within the parameters that we want” and, “To make sure that the reporter stays on topic and so does the [police] officer.”

Such blatant monitoring and repression of speech critically limits everyone’s understanding of institutions and will enable abuse. We make this special appeal to Congress to ensure such rules that silence police officers not be allowed to encumber reform.

Please see the recent article in SPJ’s Quill magazine, below, and the resources below that.

We would be pleased to discuss this issue with you.

(Contact person)
Kathryn Foxhall
Board Member

Randy Showstack,
President, SPJ DC

 [The original press release contains the entire Quill article.]


·        SPJ’s website on the issue gives background. It includes the seven SPJ-sponsored surveys that showed the censorship is pervasive. Coalitions of open government groups have written to the Obama and Trump Administrations opposing the restraints. A coalition met with Obama White House officials in 2015 to oppose the restraints. 

·        The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan’s recent column looks at the muzzling of government scientists. 

·        Columbia Journalism Review article connects the long history of these controls with current circumstances, such as the CDC being terrifyingly absent.  

·        An editorial in MedPage Today asks “You Think China Has A COVID-19 Censorship Problem? We Aren’t Much Better.” 

·        The Clearing the Fog podcast includes an episode entitled “Another Method of Censorship: Media Minders.” The relevant portion of the show begins at about 32.54 and the site includes a transcript. 

·        On Oct. 17, 2019, the House Science Space and Technology Committee voted to kill proposed provisions that would have given federal scientists the right to speak to reporters without prior permission from the authorities in their agencies. Science Magazine reported on the mark-up. 

·        On Nov. 6, 2019, SPJ and 28 other journalism and open government groups sent a letter to every member of Congress calling for support of unimpeded communication with journalists for all federal employees. 

·        Katherine Eban’s 2019 book “Bottle of Lies,” a jaw-dropping look at FDA failure, is on several “best books” lists. When the MedPage editorial (above) came out, Eban said this muzzling of government scientists was the reason it took 10 years to write the book. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Former Officials Worry about Silenced Federal Staff: The Chickens Come Home to Roost.

I am shaken by the letter from former public health officials asking federal employees to speak out about science and pandemic issues.

Most of those signing are officials from previous presidential administrations.

They were part of building and entrenching the systems, the culture, that says no one in federal agencies could communicate a word with journalists without oversight by authorities, usually the public information officers, who have been transformed into our censors.

The banning of any contact outside of the controls was quite catastrophic enough. But all kinds of barriers, including total blockage, were put on contacts with staff, a long time before President Trump took office.

I was The Nation’s Health editor when the AIDS epidemic emerged, before the blockages. In that fearful time, as a matter of routine, there was the official story and there was the real story. In the early to mid-1990s, the federal establishment began banning the flow of the real stories.

Trying to report on agencies like CDC and FDA was increasingly hellacious under the Bush and Obama administrations.

Representatives from a coalition of over 50 journalism and open government groups met with Obama White House officials in 2015 to ask that this censorship be stopped. We were promised an answer and it never came:

We warned press officer Josh Earnest that often when the press does not know something, the administration leaders don’t either.

Now, as one example, if CDC has developed corrosive disabilities, they likely did not begin under this administration. More likely they began under previous administrations while journalists could have no normal contact with staff, as they still can't. Ten thousand plus CDC people are in effect silenced.

After decades of making federal staff live under pressure to never speak without controls, the nation is now hoping, since things have gotten bad enough, they will talk.

It is worth asking whether the nation would be better off under previous administrations when we were limited to controlled, official statements, compared to now when we are often not even getting that. At least now we are not misled into thinking we are getting the full story.

I’d appreciate talking to anyone who signed the letter. For one thing, First Amendment attorney Frank LoMonte has done an extensive analysis that finds the “Censorship by PIO” is unconstitutional and many courts have said so. The former federal officials might help with that.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Media Relations Censorship Marginalizes the Public

“As protests erupt in the wake of police brutality, one key point for journalists to remember is that many police agencies have enforced silence on police officers. And that creates an historically fearful secrecy.”

In a column for the SPJ magazine Quill, I remind journalists that in an “SPJ-sponsored 2016 survey, 56% of police reporters said they can rarely or never interview a police officer without involving a department’s public information officer. Another 30% said they can do those interviews only some of the time.”

“If we can’t speak with police officers without censors, we aren’t ‘there.’ We are marginalized. And that marginalizes the public.”

The full column is here.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Asking the NYT about the Ethics of Reporting Under The "Censorship by PIO"

A few weeks ago I wrote the New York Times, asking about the ethics of reporting under the “Censorship by PIO,” without openly opposing the constraints or directly informing the public about them.

The NYT Director of Communications responded saying they could not accommodate it at this time.

In the letter I said one consequence of the constraints is, “that when the pandemic bore down most reporters had not usually talked to staff in CDC, FDA, etc., without a PIO/censor for many years. Often reporters are completely blocked from talking to the persons they request. For many agencies, reporters cannot enter the building without escort, meaning usually they can’t enter. There is no system for credentialing to allow them to enter.”

My questions included:

---Is it a credible idea that our inability to talk to 10,000 plus people at CDC, for example, does not keep information from the public? Does anything in history indicate such situations will not hide disasters?

---Why is the press taking the risk?

---Journalists have many skills and techniques. Sometimes inside people defy the rules and talk to them. Reporters “get stuff.” They develop impressive stories that push the envelope of what is known. They relentlessly hew to the belief that, “Good reporters get the story anyway.” Does any of that mean we are not missing whole universes of facts and perspectives due to all these silenced people? Is the fact we do get stuff our only justification for working under these restraints?

---Looking at the impressive stories some of your reporters do, would those same excellent reporters not have their socks knocked off if they could walk or call around agencies and talk to people without minders?

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Webinar on Constraints on Staff Speech: Slam Dunk Not Legal, Says First Amendment Attorney

The Society of Professional Journalists’ webinar on censorship and obstruction through media relations offices is up on YouTube.
Among others, it features First Amendment attorney Frank LoMonte, who say the rules prohibiting employees from speaking to the media without permission are a pervasive problem and one that is not legal.

He said many journalists tell him that, with interference from public affairs offices, reporters never get to the front line expert. They get handed off to somebody who is handpicked, “probably somebody who was compliant with the agency’s message and was not a dissenter or a troublemaker or a complainer, somebody who was going to toe the agency’s party line.”

Or they got a canned release, said LoMonte.

He said, “We can say with a high degree of confidence, a slam dunk degree of confidence, that it is not legal for a public agency to maintain a policy that says that employees will suffer some kind of retaliation or reprisal or punishment if they are caught talking to the news media without approval.

“It is just overwhelmingly the case that every federal court that has been asked this question has come down the same way and it has been true for many, many decades.”

The courts have also said, LoMonte stressed, that journalists have the legal standing to bring challenges against these rules.

He said he encouraged news organizations and groups like SPJ to look for what are the most blatantly unconstitutional gag policies out there and, “Let’s find ways to take them on.”

LoMonte also said the Brechner Center, which he heads, will issue a report this summer on the similar rules that silence college athletes.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

SPJ Webinar May 5 Will Look at Censorship through Media Relations

The Society of Professional Journalists will hold a webinar to look at the controls on journalists including forcing reporters to go through public information officers to speak to anyone, May 5 at 2 p.m.

First Amendment Attorney Frank LoMonte will speak on his extensive analysis that finds controls on employees talking to the press are unconstitutional and many courts have so. 

Kathryn Foxhall, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee member, will talk about journalism ethics in a time when agencies in charge of preventing catastrophes greatly block press scrutiny they don’t control.

Paul Fletcher, Editor of the Virginia Lawyers Weekly and head of the SPJ FOI Committee, will talk about practicalities of dealing with the roadblocks.

A link for registration is below. Recent news coverage is below that.


Washington Post Media columnist Margaret Sullivan did a piece on the PIO/media relations controls. She cites reporter’s memories of covering agencies over the last two to three decades: “Direct contact was minimized and tightly monitored. Interviews might take place with a public-relations ‘minder’ present.”

A Columbia Journalism Review article connects the long history of these controls with current circumstances, with among other things, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention being terrifyingly absent from public view.

Editorial in MedPage Today: “You Think China Has A COVID-19 Censorship Problem? We Aren’t Much Better.”

Radio interview on “Clearing the Fog,” April 6. “Another Method of Censorship: Media Minders. Media Minders portion of the show begins at about 32.54.  The site includes a transcript.

SPJ’s website on the issue gives background. SPJ, other journalism and open government groups have been speaking out against the controls for a decade.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

SPJ Webinar Will Look at the Censorship by PIO Issue

The Society of Professional Journalists plans a webinar on the media relations censorship or “Censorship by PIO” issue for May 5. It will feature Paul Fletcher, SPJ’s Freedom of Information chairperson; Frank LoMonte, the First Amendment attorney whose extensive analysis says the restraints are unconstitutional and that many courts have said so; and myself.

Further details to come.