Frank LoMonte Comments on Journalist Access Limitations to Government Experts
Frank LoMonte, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Brechner Center for Freedom of Information director, comments in “The Government’s PR Barrier: When Access to Experts is Limited or Banned” published on the National Press Club Journalism Institute’s website on July 27.
The article focuses on the directive by U.S. federal agencies and departments mandating that all contacts with news reporters be coordinated through their respective public affairs offices. Journalist advocates believe this practice creates political “spin” and gags policy experts. LoMonte has written about efforts to silence or control the ability of public employees to speak freely.
“It’s become pretty painfully obvious that elected officials have a vested interest in selectively ‘spinning’ data to convey the impression that they have COVID-19 under control,” said LoMonte. “If journalists can’t talk to the actual subject-matter experts, then we’re all going to be left with unverified and selectively cherry-picked claims that might cause people to make uneducated decisions about their safety.”
In the article, LoMonte comments on various topics including dwindling journalists resources; avoiding press secretaries and public information officers and the problem with developing reporter-source relationships; the National Labor Relations Act, initiating media contracts through federal public information officers; restrictions during the COVID pandemic; court rulings when government employees pushed back against limitation; and challenges made by journalists on invoking the First Amendment.
“Although it doesn’t seem like any news organization has ever tried it, there’s no legal reason that journalists should not be able to step into the shoes of their sources and bring a First Amendment challenge,” said LoMonte. “The precedent is already well-established in a very similar context, gag orders imposed by trial judges. In that context, news organizations have had no trouble establishing that they’re the proper plaintiffs to bring the case, either because their rights are directly affected or because they’re indirectly affected by the violation of their sources’ rights. In fact, some judges have treated a restriction on interviewing participants in trials as a ‘prior restraint’ directly on the news media, which means there’s an almost ironclad legal presumption that the restriction is unconstitutional.”