SPJ presents report on government employee gag policies
Haisten Willis, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chair, 317-927-8000, firstname.lastname@example.org
Zoë Berg, SPJ Communications Specialist, 317-920-4785, email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists is publishing “The Gagging of America,” a report on the policies in place by government agencies restricting employee speech.
“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 taxpayer dollars and protected by the First Amendment,” the report says. “Even though restrictive speech policies are almost certainly illegal, they remain prevalent.”
To gauge the extent and reach of these gag policies, the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee sought press policies from government agencies ranging from small school systems and police departments 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. Its 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. Only three agencies had no formal restrictions.
The report details the findings from each agency and provides access to the documents the Committee reviewed.
“What we found in our search was unfortunately not surprising — employees at all levels of government are being told they cannot speak freely about their jobs,” said Haisten Willis, chair of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee. “We are now calling on other journalists to get involved. Issue FOIA requests to get policies at the agencies you cover. Once you obtain a copy of the policy, write about it, publicize it, question it and challenge it.”
SPJ has pushed back against these harmful policies for years. This includes urging the Biden administration to amend a federal government report that doesn’t go far enough in giving federal scientists the freedom to speak to journalists and sending a letter to the White House to request a meeting to discuss crucial ways to protect against federal interference in journalists’ important work. The Society also has provided information on working with PIOs.
The report concludes on a positive note.
“We believe this disturbing trend can be reversed,” it states. “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.”
SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to informing citizens; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and fights to protect First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. Support excellent journalism and fight for your right to know. Become a member, give to the Legal Defense Fund or give to the SPJ Foundation.