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Keep Lines of Communication with Police in Minneapolis Open Says SPJ


Robert Leger, President, 417/836-1113 or cell 417/425-9140 or rleger@spj.org
Charles N. Davis, FOI Committee Co-Chairman, 573/882-5736 or daviscn@missouri.edu

-- Efforts by the mayor of Minneapolis to centralize and approve all police contacts with news media poorly serve constituents by stifling dissent and impeding the flow of information to the public, the Society of Professional Journalists says.

In a February memo to Police Chief Robert Olson, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak – a former journalist – ordered all police contacts with the media be approved by city Communications Director Gail Plewacki. In a move seemingly aimed at centralizing control of all police communication with the news media, Rybak ordered that the department’s public information officer report to Plewacki rather than the chief, a change that spurred Cyndi Barrington to quit her job as police spokeswoman.

Rybak later said that the communications director’s approval would be necessary only to discuss policy issues, allegations of officer misconduct and shootings involving an officer. Nevertheless, SPJ condemns any official policy that serves to cut everyday communication between taxpayer-funded public servants and journalists serving the overriding public interest in the criminal justice system.

Such controls are at odds with Rybak’s campaign pledge to throw open the doors to City Hall. As the Minneapolis Star-Tribune said on its editorial pages on Feb. 8, “Of all people, Mayor R.T. Rybak ought to know better. An erstwhile reporter, publisher and activist, he certainly knows public institutions work best in the sunlight. So what’s the deal with his edict that Minneapolis police must get city permission before talking to reporters on certain issues? Is the fellow who promised to throw open the doors of City Hall now scrambling to close all the shutters?”

“Rybak contends that the policy is aimed at assuring that the city speaks with one voice, but the simple fact remains that the city’s voice is comprised of diverse interests and viewpoints that cannot simply be whipped into line by mayoral diktat,” said Charles N. Davis, executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and co-chair of SPJ’s FOI Committee. “This policy sacrifices public debate and knowledge of the events of the day in the interest of public relations.”

Most importantly, centralized control of the statements of public officials ignores the role of the executive office in a democratic government. Public employees have a First Amendment right to speak to the news media about newsworthy public issues – a right that cannot be restricted absent a compelling interest. SPJ sees no such compelling interest in this instance – only a desire by the mayor to restrict the flow of information to the people.

Under such a policy, no member of the Police Department could say a word to the press about the most important issues facing a municipal police force without approval from City Hall, a measure sure to stifle legitimate dissent and narrow the range of stories to those deemed safe for public consumption.

“Mayor Rybak’s ham-handed attempt at limiting information to the public sets a bad example that other mayors will be tempted to follow,” says SPJ President Robert Leger, editorial page editor at the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. “Ryback’s example, though, is a blow to representative government, which depends on information to work. That’s why he should rescind his policy, and why other mayors should resist following suit.”

SPJ urges Mayor Rybak to look instead to the model provided by Alabama Governor Bob Riley, whose press secretary sent a memo to Cabinet members last week saying public records should be released promptly on request, with no need for agency heads to seek approval first from Riley’s legal staff unless there are questions of law.

Under Riley’s predecessor, Gov. Don Siegelman, news media requests for public records were for a short time routed to Siegelman’s press office for approval by his legal adviser. The Democratic incumbent lost narrowly to the Republican Riley last year following a campaign in which Riley targeted ethics questions surrounding Siegelman and promised a more open government in Alabama.

The lesson from Alabama is one every citizen and journalist should remember: secrecy and heavy-handed controls on information offend a democratic people. SPJ urges Mayor Rybak to revisit his policy on police communication with news media with the goal of facilitating, rather than hindering, the flow of information to his constituents.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, 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.


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