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.
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.
President, SPJ DC
[The original press release contains the entire Quill article.]
RESOURCES ON “CENSORSHIP BY PIO”
· 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.