Frank LoMonte Comments on Employee Restrictions on Speaking to the Media and Requirements for Campus Journalists to Divulge Sources
Frank LoMonte, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Brechner Center for Freedom of Information director, is the author of “Putting the ‘Public’ Back into Public Employment: A Roadmap for Challenging Prior Restraints That Prohibit Government Employees from Speaking to the News Media” published in the University of Kansas Law Review, Volume 68, Issue 1.
The article is a more extensive version of the white paper published by the Brechner Center on Oct. 15. It calls attention to the illegality of restricting government employees from speaking to the news media about their candid observations.
“Regardless of their questionable legality, employee gag policies are not just ubiquitous but unapologetically ubiquitous, their proponents seemingly unaware that a complete proscription against discussing government matters might implicate an employee’s legally protected rights,” said LoMonte.
He adds, “The notion that employees must be restrained from saying anything to the public about their work because they might compromise the image of the government agency or undercut the message that the agency hopes to convey devalues the public’s interest in an unvarnished understanding of how government works.”
LoMonte was also the author of “College Media Labs May Increasingly Clash with Their Universities” published on poynter.org on Nov. 21.
LoMonte writes about the University of Illinois decision to make all employees, including those of the University’s NPR station, obligated to reveal information about sexual misconduct to the campus Title IX office even if the sources requested anonymity.
“By designating NPR Illinois journalists as ‘responsible employees’ for purposes of Title IX compliance, the university made it a firing offense for a journalist to refuse to divulge the identity of a source who comes forward as a victim of rape or sexual harassment,” said LoMonte.
He adds, “In the professional world, journalists can count on vigorous and well-established legal protections that prevent government authority figures from searching their newsrooms, demanding the identities of their sources, or retaliating for unflattering coverage. On college campuses, however, journalists cannot confidently assume that the law will come to their aid when the source of adversity is the agency that issues their paychecks.”
NPR Illinois reporting partner ProPublica became involved in the situation. They pushed back against the university’s decision with the assistance of the ACLU of Illinois and other press-freedom organizations across the county.
“But not every campus reporting enterprise will be backstopped by an editorially independent partner as muscular as ProPublica,” said LoMonte. “That’s why the legal system must adapt to the growing reality that journalists are at risk of governmental reprisal from within their own workplaces.”