This is Sunshine Week, launched by American Society of News Editors in 2005 to coincide with James Madison’s birthday March 16.
The idea behind Sunshine Week is to celebrate the public’s right to know what its government is doing and why. A major tenet in that philosophy is the freedom of the press and its ability to report freely the news of our particular communities without peril and obstruction while also celebrating the open flow of communication. And, in case you didn’t know, James Madison drafted the first 10 amendments of our Constitution, the first of which states, in part, that “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
So it is a bit ironic that officials at Skyline Community College in San Bruno chose last week to send out an announcement of its media policy to its faculty and staff that essentially limited how they are allowed to speak to the press. That press also included the school’s newspaper — the Skyline View.
In its communication to faculty and staff, the administration stated that all questions from the media be submitted in writing to the college’s marketing, communications and public relations director for response. No questions should be directly answered and no one should agree to conduct an interview with a member of the media, according to the memo. In addition, the memo also directed faculty and staff not to agree to talk off the record with a reporter and that nothing is off the record when speaking to the media. That last item was meant to be a “tip,” but makes a terrible assumption about reporters and their ability to keep items off the record. For the record, professional reporters can be trusted with “off the record” information or will disclose that they won’t abide by that request. The idea behind the issuance of this memo was to “protect the brand and image of the college.”
A Daily Journal story in the Tuesday edition outlined the distress the memo caused, from the teachers union that said it violated free speech to members of the Skyline View staff who said it restricts their ability to conduct their academic effort of getting information from teachers and mentors.
True and true. Sending the memo was an extremely poor choice because it sent the message that not only are the faculty not to be trusted, but neither are its students.
Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and officials at the San Mateo County Community College District had another announcement sent out that not only apologized for the confusion by the initial memo, but said it will reevaluate the media statement through public participation before releasing it again.
That’s a step in the right direction. Still, there should be some lingering concern that the memo was issued in the first place without proper vetting. If the college is worried about its brand, then it should start by creating an environment in which its students, staff and faculty are valued and trusted. Telling them they need to check with someone before speaking freely to members of the press is not in line with that philosophy.