Government agencies increasingly limit public access to officials and information

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Texas Education Agency Deputy Commissioner A.J. Crabill says he is hamstrung by an agency policy that prohibits him from talking to the news media.  

“I can’t talk to the press without permission from the agency,” Crabill told The Texas Monitor in August. A key figure in the retraining of school boards in failing districts around the state, he indicated he wanted to cooperate with the Texas Monitor story. The agency’s head of communications at the time, Ciara Wieland, refused the request.

But Crabill may speak to the press if he elects to: The First Amendment guarantees that.  In one of many cases challenging similar policies, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1981 that an edict from Dallas County Sheriff Carl Thomas that tried to prohibit deputies from speaking to the media was unconstitutional.

Crabill is not completely to blame for his reluctance. Communications departments at every level of government around the state are increasingly taking control of the message, insisting that any statement issued at any level begins with a call to their office. In the past 20 years, government agencies have clamped down on the release of information of many types, to both the press and the public. The policies – and the overall attitude toward transparency or lack of it – of course, are almost always set by higher-level officials.

“They are using these message control efforts to put as positive a face on their agencies as possible,” said Carolyn Carlson, a journalism professor at Kennesaw State University who has studied the move away from open access to public officials.

“This is a new attitude,” Carlson said. “Politicians have figured out a way that they can demand of [public information officers] that they not let out anything that would make their agency look bad.”

In Texas, dozens of government entities post online their policies about employees speaking to reporters. Many require employees to direct all press inquiries to the public relations office.

Many stop short — barely — of requiring silence from employees.

The Texas Secretary of State insists that election judges not speak to reporters, stifling what could be valuable information about the state’s election process.

Stephen Chang, director of communications for the Texas secretary of state, did not return a call. In an email, he said that “in their official capacity, Election Inspectors/Judges are representatives of our office, and as such, are directed to send media inquiries to the agency’s communications staff.”

Similarly, the Texas Workforce Commission extends its public relations arm to its appointed commissioners, who shape the state’s employment policies.

“In terms of our media policy for contacting anyone within the agency, please contact me directly and copy Margaret Hession … for all/any media inquiries related to the Texas Workforce Commission and our Commissioners,” Cisco Gamez, a spokesman for the TWC, said in an email.

The Texas Railroad Commission in 2012 implemented an unlawful policy requiring employees to be given permission before speaking to the media. No one at the time pointed out the constitutional violation, but the agency in 2015 rescinded the policy.

 “We should be able to be able to talk to the right person with the right information, and we should not kid ourselves when there is a controller, the public relations people, working for the people in power,” said Kathryn Foxhall, a veteran Washington, D.C., reporter and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. Along with Carlson, she has done research for SPJ’s “Censorship by PIO” awareness campaign.

Public officials often disregard requests for comments, either emailed or called in. Or they simply forward messages to public relations staffers.

“There is a tendency to deflect journalists to the public relations staff because government employees often don’t like answering uncomfortable questions,” said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida. He directed a recently released, comprehensive study on the ebbing willingness of public officials to respond to the public.

LoMonte said policies that call for journalists to start their questioning at the public relations level “can be used as a cop-out, so the people in charge can claim to be prohibited from talking to the media.”

Yet public relations staffers see policies directing the public to their office as benefiting everyone.

“It’s more for help with what they need than to impede the process,” said Tiffany Dunne-Oldfield, at the Spring school district outside Houston, which places what looks like a warning on its website: “All media inquiries should be directed to the Communications Office, including those sent via email.”

Dunne-Oldfield said if a reporter directly contacts an administrator, “they come to us to help because they’re busy people. We want them to focus on the kids. They come to us and say, ‘Hey we got this, can you help us?’ We’re just trying to do the legwork.”

At the Texas Education Agency, despite what Crabill was told. there is no policy regulating who can speak to whom.

“We have nothing in place that prohibits employees from talking to the press or anyone they want to,” said Frank Ward, the agency’s director of communications.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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