Mr. David R. Paulison, Director
Federal Emergency Management Agency
500 C Street SW
Washington, D.C. 20472
Dear Mr. Paulison:
On behalf of the Society of Professional Journalists, we are writing to express outrage at the treatment given to residents of FEMA parks in Louisiana and the journalists trying to report their stories.
According to the Baton Rouge (La.) Advocate, reporters attempting to speak with residents of a FEMA-run trailer park in Louisiana were stopped by security guards.
“During an interview in one trailer, a security guard knocked on the door, ordered the reporter out and eventually called police, saying residents aren’t allowed to talk to the media in the park,” wrote Advocate reporter Sandy Davis.
Similar rules were enforced in Plaquemines Parish, where 242 new travel trailers in a FEMA park recently sat empty. Security guards there allowed a reporter and photographer to drive through the two side-by-side parks, in Davant and Morgan, but ordered them not to talk to anyone or take pictures.
Further, FEMA refuses to say how much it cost to build the two city parks. FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Rodi gave no reason for not disclosing how much was spent.
“We’re not going to talk about cost,” she said.
The Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s most broad-based association of working journalists representing more than 9,000 print, broadcast and online reporters and editors, expresses its deep concern about these actions.
We are outraged by the arrogance and contempt for public discourse on display in Louisiana, a year after FEMA’s performance in the wake of Katrina earned it widespread criticism. Now FEMA is banning reporters from public property as reporters try to provide scrutiny of the agency.
These journalists are attempting to access public property, in broad daylight, and to speak with consenting residents of a trailer park paid for with federal tax dollars. We fail to see how such journalism is anything but the very sort of newsgathering for which the First Amendment was created.
The Advocate’s story also confirmed that FEMA does not allow the media to speak alone to residents in their trailers.
“If a resident invites the media to the trailer, they have to be escorted by a FEMA representative who sits in on the interview,” Rodi said. “That’s just a policy.”
The Advocate’s portrayal of one resident’s attempts to speak with the press is particularly chilling:
Later the same day, the reporter and photographer pulled off La. 70 to talk to Pansy Ardeneaux through a chain-link fence surrounding the FEMA park.
Ardeneaux said she and her boyfriend had just moved into the park.
“We had to wait about two months from the time he applied for the trailer until he got it,” she said.
As Ardeneaux talked, the same security guard pulled up.
“You are not allowed to talk to these people,” the guard yelled at Ardeneaux. “Return to your trailer now.”
A clearly flustered Ardeneaux returned to her trailer.
We request that your office review the constitutionality of any policy that dictates when and how those affected by FEMA’s work may speak to the press. Denying citizens access to the news media unless they are joined by FEMA “minders” raises troubling constitutional issues. Receipt of FEMA aid should not mean that citizens leave their constitutional rights behind.
The residents of the region — who have suffered so mightily — surely deserve nothing less than the freedom to tell their stories.
David E. Carlson
Charles N. Davis
Co-chair, Freedom of Information Committee