Arkansas reporter accuses school official of prohibiting employees from talking to press

A Helena newspaper reporter accused the superintendent of schools at Helena-West Helena School District of placing a gag order on school personnel in February after teachers from different schools in the district were quoted in several articles that appeared in a local newspaper.

Gary Watkins, who covers the Helena-West Helena school district for the Daily World, said the superintendent was angry because of stories that appeared in the paper critical of the district.

“I had gone out to cover a cafeteria [gas] leak that was called into us by a cafeteria employee,” Watkins said. “I talked to the superintendent and some of the employees about what had happened on Friday, and the following Monday, the principal at that school issued a memo indicating that in the future, they would discipline any person that called the press.”

“Then we did a story on that so they issued another memo, and they said that they had not really meant to discipline anyone,” he said. “But that is when the gag order came out instructing all interviews, comments or articles to be directed to the superintendent.”

Superintendent Rodney Echols denied issuing a gag order. Rather, Echols said, he wanted all initial calls about the district to be sent to his office so that he could direct the caller to the appropriate person.

Watkins said he does not need the superintendent’s help in selecting the appropriate people to interview for a story.

“He has not referred us to the proper people,” Watkins said. “He has tried to control teachers, administrators and the press. If I know the teacher for a given story, then who else is he going to refer me to?”

Watkins said Echols has refused to comment on whether or not employees will still be disciplined for comments that appear in print.

“I have asked Echols and his assistant, who drafted the memo, whether people would be disciplined, and they have consistently said ‘no comment,'” he said. “If you were not going to do anything, why issue a memo? From a newspaper’s perspective, this remains a gag order. I still get some people who say they cannot talk to us and they do not want to see their name in the paper. We certainly feel that this constitutes an attempt to silence the teachers in this area.”

According to Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU in Arkansas, public employees cannot be prohibited from speaking to the press.

“It is a violation of the First Amendment for a state employee to tell other state employees under his supervision not to talk to the public about matters of public concern,” she said.