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SPJ supports student newspaper and editor after University of Kentucky’s heavy-handed action


INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists is supporting The Kentucky Kernel after the independent student news outlet at the University of Kentucky was punished for doing its job: reporting news.

In a letter to UK’s president and athletics director, SPJ President Hagit Limor has expressed concern that the university’s athletics department punished Kernel basketball writer and managing editor Aaron Smith. His supposed transgression was following up on a tip and contacting two students to confirm whether they were walk-ons with the team. In doing so, athletics officials say he violated a policy that news media arrange all contact with players and coaches through media relations. In response, the athletics department rescinded Smith’s invitation to participate in a media availability event to interview basketball players on Tuesday, August 30.

SPJ’s letter to UK officials is included below.

[Correction: This statement and letter originally identified Aaron Smith as "sports editor." His position is as basketball writer and the paper's managing editor.]

For more background, see reporting from the Lexington Herald-Leader here. The Kentucky Kernel has coverage here.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.

To: Dr. Eli Capilouto
President, University of Kentucky

Mitch Barnhart
Director of Athletics

From: Hagit Limor
President, Society of Professional Journalists

Date: August 31, 2011

Dear President Capilouto and Athletic Director Barnhart,

We at the national Society of Professional Journalists are concerned about the actions of the UK athletics department against The Kentucky Kernel and basketball writer/managing editor Aaron Smith. The onerous response of media relations officials to a reporter doing his job – to report news of interest to the university community – is a poor reflection of how the athletics department, and ultimately the university, views an independent and free press.

Numerous news outlets have reported the punitive actions taken against Smith and the newspaper. As well, other journalism groups, including our local Bluegrass Pro chapter and UK student chapter, have expressed concern. The national organization of SPJ reiterates those sentiments and encourages the university to set a better example for its students and the community. A heavy-handed approach and tight control over news media reflect poorly on your reputation as an open public institution of higher learning.

Journalists are charged with seeking truth and reporting it. That is what Smith and the Kernel did. The reporter followed a tip and sought to confirm the information directly with the individuals in question. Those individuals happened to be members of the university athletic community, over which the university seeks to exert control and restricts access. In a case as innocuous as this, we have to ask, what does the university stand to gain by constantly, in every situation, placing barriers between reporters and athletes and coaches? Furthermore, what kind of message does it send to your students, staff, supporters, alumni and the community that news reporters are punished for simply doing their jobs? Not a very good one, especially for a public institution that teaches the value of openness, a fundamental underpinning of which is the First Amendment.

We hope this incident is taken seriously and used as a teachable moment. It is convenient, therefore, that you are at a university that prides itself on teaching and education. Let that lesson be: When you restrict access to information and punish those who seek it, nobody wins.


Hagit Limor
National President
Society of Professional Journalists

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