Mustang News Staff Meeting Dec. 1, 2019

Aidan McGloin is a journalism senior, a Mustang News administrative reporter and the founder of The Hill, Mustang News’ data team. The views in this editorial do not necessarily reflect the views of Mustang News. 

On Student Press Freedom Day, we recognize the importance of a free press.

We actually recognize the importance of a free exchange of ideas.

They are one and the same. A free press is only as free as the students, faculty and sources who speak their minds. While Jan. 29 is remembered for the 1983 Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which allowed administrative censorship of high school newspapers, there are more ways than flat redaction to silence a press.

Hungary forced the sale and closure of its largest opposition paper, Népszabadság, in 2016.

Peter Thiel bankrupted Gawker Media through secretly funding nuisance lawsuits against the company in the same year.

LA Weekly was bought and gutted in 2017 by owners who disagreed with the free paper’s liberal stance.

Mustang News is free from censorship through the First Amendment — campus employees have no right to change our paper, and all writing and editing is done by students. 

We also have healthy print advertising revenue, which pays for the paper’s bills. Our advertising team’s work has freed us from reliance on university funding — which could change at administration’s discretion — unlike Utah’s Dixie State News, which had their revenue slashed by unfavorable student government. While we are not completely independent from the university, as we work in a campus building with university-funded equipment and salaries, our team works enough to free us from day-to-day reliance or need.

We have it good in California, where First Amendment protections offer more than the national standard, and where the state quickly overruled the Hazelwood decision and gave the right to freely publish back to high school students.

But we are not without problems, as small they may seem.

A constant re-routing in interview requests, despite established freedom of speech granted to state workers, has slowed down stories and built a barrier between reporters and campus employees. 

My freshman year, a general inquiry into a story would lend me an interview with a campus vice-president. Now, a request for an interview is passed along to a third-party, who asks for the complete lists of questions I would ask, who says no one is available and who sends back responses I cannot in good faith publish.

Requests for interviews have been met with week-long email chains among administrators, with reporters left in the dark about their status, and professors have told me and other reporters at times that they feel intimidated to talk with us.

We understand some of that fear is due to our own occasional misgivings. Another share of it is due to phantom pressure by administration.

To clear up the record: state employees have every right to speak about every aspect of their jobs. Policies of prior restraint, including policies to refer to spokespeople prior to speaking with the press, are presumed unconstitutional.

In the 1998 federal appeals case Harman v. City of New York, in which government employees were asked to reach out to the public information department before releasing any information to the media, the court wrote, “The kind of approval procedure mandated by the City is generally disfavored under First Amendment law because it chills potential speech before it happens”

In the 1981 case Barrett v. Thomas, in which the court reviewed a sheriff’s policy which restricted employees to only making “authorized public statements” to the media, the court said, “Although promoting loyalty, discipline, and efficiency in the department is a legitimate goal, these rules sweep beyond their intended ambit and impermissibly chill protected speech by the department’s employees.”

In the 2017 case Moonin v. Tice, which took place in California’s Ninth Circuit, the Nevada Highway Patrol punished an officer who broke policy in speaking to the public about the department’s K-9 program. The court ruled the department’s policy infringed the officer’s First Amendment right: “Avoiding accountability by reason of persuasive speech to other governmental officials and the public is not an interest that can justify curtailing officers’ speech as citizens on matters of public concern.”

Despite this precedent, public universities continue to impose blanket gag laws. The University of California’s media office requests that:

“If a reporter contacts you or someone in your department for an interview or information, please refer the reporter to Media Relations so we can coordinate a response. If an interview is arranged, someone from Media Relations will usually confer with the university representative in advance and be present for the interview.”

Mustang News, similarly, has been told there is a process at Cal Poly — and that we must respect it — when it comes to reaching out to sources, employees and experts at Cal Poly. While I respect the individual right of employees to defer to others or to decline for comment altogether, this forced routing only causes a disservice for all involved in Cal Poly’s community.

It does a disservice to the students, the primary stakeholders in the educational mission of the university, who deserve the truth Mustang News seeks to report. It does a disservice to faculty and staff who would otherwise talk with members of the media, whether it be Mustang News, New Times or the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Least importantly, it does a disservice to the student reporters who came to Cal Poly to learn how to meet with people, individually, free from the control of others, and write stories about their important work.

We urge employees to understand their rights. We urge the recent re-routing process to be dropped, with the understanding that it chills free speech. We urge an open and free dialogue with members of the community.

We celebrate the press freedom we already have and work to find more for future generations of students.

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