News Analysis: Is County imposing employee/media censorship via PIO?

County Posts for Full-Time $60-$65K Public Information Officer (PIO)

WINNSBORO – It was in February, 2022, that former County Administrator Malik Whitaker first imposed restrictions on Fairfield County employees’ First Amendment rights, forbidding them to talk to the media without approval from county administration.

In an email, Whitaker instructed employees, “If you are contacted by someone from the media, direct them to [Deputy County Administrator] Synithia Williams [who also served as the county’s PIO].

“A more formal procedure for responding to media inquiries is forthcoming,” Whitaker wrote.

That more formal procedure may be on the horizon, according to a July 21, 2023, job posting authorized by Fairfield County’s Interim Administrator Laura Johnson for a fulltime PIO for the county.  Annual salary for the position ranges from $60,000 to $65,000.

The posting states, in part, that the PIO will be the county’s initial point of contact between the media and appropriate employees, and will assist county employees with responses to the media.

Asked by The Voice if employees who do not seek approval from county officials before talking with the media would face termination, Williams said that while, “county employees are not banned from talking to the media, they are required to notify administration, and the public information officer, if they are contacted by the media. They are also required to get permission from administration before giving information to the media. Employees who speak to the media represent Fairfield County, and our goal is to ensure that correct information is given while also being aware of what information is being requested from the county. The county’s media policy is similar to the policies of other government organizations. A County employee who speaks to the media without notifying administration first may be subject to corrective action.”

Williams says the county council approved the addition of a public information officer in the fiscal year 2023-2024 budget.

“The public information officer will be responsible for communicating with the public and the media about Fairfield County,” Williams said. “The County has multiple projects underway and the need to effectively communicate and educate the public on County polices, programs, projects and other complex information warranted the need to have someone solely focused on making information assessable to all citizens.”

First Amendment

According to a press release issued last week by the Society of Professional Journalists, such communication restrictions or gag orders have been found to be unconstitutional in past cases brought by employees or their unions.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution not only guarantees the right to freedom of expression without government interference, but it prohibits laws that infringe upon the freedom of the press as well.

One journalist – maybe the first one – is fighting back against this form of government censorship that often masquerades as “ensuring consistency” or “preventing multiple messages from going out.”

Lawsuit Filed

Investigative journalist Brittany Hailer filed a lawsuit earlier this month against the Allegheny County Jail in Pennsylvania for its policies prohibiting staff and contractors from speaking to the media about the jail without [the county government’s] approval, according to the press release. 

Hailer is director of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Her work is funded in part by The Pulitzer Center.

Her lawsuit claims since April of 2020, at least 20 men have died after entering the jail, with circumstances of many of the deaths being unclear.

These speech bans, which journalists have seen grow more pervasive and controlling, are among the most damaging threats to free speech and public welfare today,” said Claire Regan, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPI). “SPI has repeatedly led in opposing these restrictions which it has called censorship and authoritarian. Hailer’s suit shows journalists that they, themselves, can fight back in court against people in power silencing subordinates in terms of talking to reporters or forcing [employees] to report conversations to authorities.”

“[Hailer’s] case presents an important issue for reporters at a time when agencies at every level of government are barring their employees from talking with the press,” said David Schutz, director of the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic. “The issue at the heart of this case goes directly to the ability of the press to ferret out the news the public needs for democracy to function.”

“Government restrictions are sometimes referred to as ‘censorship by PIO,’ because many government agencies force employees to refer any reporter to their public information office rather than speak with them,” according to SPJ’s press release. “SPJ surveys have shown these controls to be common in federal, state and local government, as well as in science, education and police departments.”

The SPJ press release also stated that in 2019, Frank LoMonte, then head of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information and an SPJ Foundation board member, published a legal analysis and road map for this kind of action by journalists, saying, “media plaintiffs should be able to establish that their interests have been injured, whether directly or indirectly, to sustain a First Amendment challenge to government restraints on employees’ speech to the media.”

“Information control is one of the most abusive, deadliest things in all human history, even when leaders believe in what they are doing,” said journalist Kathryn Foxhall, who was honored by the SPJ for her extensive work opposing gag rules.

“Journalists take pride in the notion that, ‘Good reporters get the story anyway,” Foxhall said. “But we don’t know what remains hidden. We need to fight these bans as if lives depend upon it. Because they do.”

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