One of the most consistent issues journalists face today, when attempting to speak with workers on the street and powerful politicians alike, is hearing that employees are not allowed to speak to the press due to restrictive policies at work.
The silencing of employees is problematic for workers, journalists and the public for many reasons, and is especially troubling in the public sector, which is funded by taxpayers dollars and protected by the First Amendment. Even though restrictive speech policies are almost certainly illegal, they remain prevalent.
To gauge the extent and reach of so-called gag policies, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee sought press policies from government agencies ranging from small school systems and police departments all the way to federal agencies with tens of thousands of employees.
Through a combination of informal inquiries, internet searches and Freedom of Information requests, the committee obtained 25 policies in total. Our findings are consistent with what journalists experience in the field: 12 of the 25 agencies explicitly state that all contact between employees and journalists must be handled by minders, often with titles like “public information officer” or “public affairs,” while 10 include vague language that can create confusion and leave employees unsure.
Among the agencies strictly forbidding their employees from speaking freely about their jobs are the Federal Department of Education, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the New York State Department of Education, and the Norman, Oklahoma, police department and public school systems. We also queried a pair of tribal governments, finding that the Muscogee Nation and Cherokee Nation, while not subject to the First Amendment, both place gag orders on their employees.
Of the remaining 13 agencies, 10 place at least some restrictions on employee speech or are internally contradictory.
Palm Beach County, Florida, public schools states that principals can speak without permission and must merely “notify” the affairs office, but says nothing about other employees. The Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area Transit Authority says employees must contact media relations if their statement might be construed as speaking on behalf of the agency, but doesn’t make clear what to do otherwise. The Federal Department of Health and Human Services tells employees they must coordinate with media relations before releasing information, but then says they are free to speak about their work.
Of the agencies we were able to reach, just three did not place any formal, written speech restrictions on their employees. Escambia County, Florida’s public school system has nothing in its rulebook about news media communications. Savannah, Georgia’s public schools say media are "asked" to coordinate with public affairs on site visits but otherwise include no restrictive language. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission includes a policy about handling sensitive documents but no overall gag.
Of course, even in government agencies where no formal policy exists, employees often are made to understand that they are to have no contact with the press for fear of retribution.
When employees cannot speak about their jobs publicly, and sometimes even privately, they’re unable to shed light on workplace conditions and may resist raising important issues if doing so could lead to punishment. These restrictions fall hardest on lower-level employees while benefiting top managers who can potentially use them to silence dissent and hide unflattering information. By the same token, they also prevent good news from being spread and reaching the wider community.
Luckily, important stakeholders are pushing back. SPJ and other journalism groups are shedding light on the issue and seeking change. Labor groups like the American Federation of Teachers are working to keep gag policies from being implemented and even taking to the courts to stop them.
We believe this disturbing trend can be reversed. Journalists can seek out and report on gag policies at the agencies they cover, inform sources of their First Amendment rights, and let readers know who isn’t being allowed to speak and what questions aren’t being answered as a result.
We hope this project helps further the conversation around the First Amendment, the rights of employees to let their voices be heard and the duty of public agencies to be just that — public.
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