Professor: Archer media policy too broad

Editor’s note (Jan. 11): The Archer City Commission unanimously approved the resolution limiting staff contact with media. 

Our original story: 

The Archer City Commission is poised to approve a rule on Monday night that prevents staff from speaking with the media, but one University of Florida professor says the language of the policy is too broad.

The proposed language of section 13.07 of the city’s personnel policy is titled “Public Information and the Media.” It states: “The City Manager is designated as the public information officer for the City. Employees shall direct all public records requests, and media inquiries to the City Manager who shall determine the City’s response to such requests and inquiries, and the appropriate personnel to provide such response. This provision shall not apply to members of the City Commission.”

Archer City Attorney Clay Martin said the rule is in response to issues that arose from media inquiries during the pandemic.

“It was recognized as a potential issue when city hall had to close down over the summer because of COVID,” Martin said in an interview after the Dec. 13 regular commission meeting, when commissioners approved the initial reading of Resolution 2022-01. The policy will receive a second reading Monday night, leading to adoption.

“When all of the employees got [COVID-19] and different media outlets were contacting different people, everybody realized they could have gotten one message from the manager, one message from the deputy clerk, one message from a city employee down at Public Works,” Martin said. “And so for the employees, they want the manager to be the only person speaking on behalf of the city.” 

UF law professor Frank D. LoMonte, who serves as director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the UF College of Journalism and Communications, said a media policy can centralize responding to records requests but not stifle the free speech of its employees. He called the proposed Archer language overly broad.

“It does not give employees any notice that they are free to speak to the media as long as they are not speaking on behalf of their agency,” LoMonte said. “A city government cannot legally forbid employees from talking to the media without approval. They can say, ‘Don’t hold yourself out as an official spokesperson speaking on behalf of the city,’ but employees must be free to discuss their work and the knowledge they’ve gained at work.”

LoMonte offered examples of municipal media policies that he says won’t infringe on employees’ right to talk to the media. He called the San Francisco Police Department’s policy “the closest I’ve seen to accurately capturing the First Amendment rights of public employees.” The full policy is available online

It states: “It is the policy of the San Francisco Police Department to cooperate with members of the media in their news-gathering activities as long as investigations are not jeopardized, police operations are not interfered with, or officer safety is not endangered. Each member of this Department has the authority to speak with the news media to his/her level of personal knowledge and is encouraged to do so.”

LoMonte also pointed to Washington, D.C. Police Department policy as acceptable because it allows employees to give off-duty interviews without prior approval.  

“It also says, at p. 5, that employees should consult with the PIO if a reporter is asking for the department’s official position,” LoMonte wrote in an email. “That suggests that no consultation with the [public information officer] is required if the request is NOT for an official statement of the department’s position.”

The City of Gainesville does not have such a rule for employees.

“There is no explicit policy directing employees in the event of media requests,” city spokesperson Rossana Passaniti said. “But it’s preferred practice for staff to direct reporters to the Office of Communications and Engagement whose team can secure the most appropriate and available source for the media.”

The same is true for employees of Alachua County.

According to Mark Sexton, director of communications and legislative affairs, the county has a “decentralized” media contact philosophy.

“Employees are not required to go through the county manager’s office or the communications office for approval to speak to the media,” Sexton said. “However, once the contact has taken place, employees are required to send a media contact notification email to the county manager, communications coordinator, and their department director, with a brief summary of the contact.”

Archer’s Clay Martin said the rule applies to city staff only.

“The mayor and city commissioners are elected officials,” he said. “They can do whatever they want.” 

But when asked what an employee should do if approached by a reporter out in the field and asked any question, even about how often a park gets mowed, Martin responded, “If they are following the rules, they need to say, ‘You need to talk to the city manager.'”

“They ought not comment on anything,” Martin added. 

LoMonte says that policy goes too far. In an article published by the Poynter Institute For Media Studies, LoMonte states, “Prohibiting government employees from sharing their candid observations isn’t just bad for journalism. It’s against the law.”

He goes on to argue that such policies will not stand up to legal scrutiny. 

“No federal circuit has ever upheld a ‘don’t talk to the media’ policy in the face of a First Amendment challenge,” the article continues. “To justify restricting employees’ speech, government agencies cite their interest in maintaining a favorable public image with a consistent message. That justification should alarm anyone concerned with honest, effective government. If government employees have information that would cause the public to doubt whether their agencies are functioning properly, the agency has no legitimate grounds to suppress that information to create an artificially rosy picture.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct resolution number. 

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