Reporter accuses school official of prohibiting employees from talking to press

ARKANSAS — A Helena newspaper reporter accused thesuperintendent of schools at Helena-West Helena School Districtof placing a gag order on school personnel in February after teachersfrom different schools in the district were quoted in severalarticles that appeared in a local newspaper.

Gary Watkins, who covers the Helena-West Helena school districtfor the Daily World, said the superintendent was angrybecause of stories that appeared in the paper critical of thedistrict.

"I had gone out to cover a cafeteria [gas] leak that wascalled into us by a cafeteria employee," Watkins said. "Italked to the superintendent and some of the employees about whathad happened on Friday, and the following Monday, the principalat that school issued a memo indicating that in the future, theywould 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 instructingall 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 tobe sent to his office so that he could direct the caller to theappropriate person.

"Reporters are allowed to speak with any individual thatis involved in a story," Echols said. "I am concernedthat people are going around the superintendent about issues thatconcern the district. So I am trying to get the reporter to visitmy office first, and then I will give him or her the telephonenumber of other good sources of information."

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

"He has not referred us to the proper people," Watkinssaid. "He has tried to control teachers, administrators andthe press. If I know the teacher for a given story, then who elseis he going to refer me to?"

Watkins said Echols has refused to comment on whether or notemployees will still be disciplined for comments that appear inprint.

"I have asked Echols and his assistant, who drafted thememo, whether people would be disciplined, and they have consistentlysaid ‘no comment,’" he said. "If you were not goingto do anything, why issue a memo? From a newspaper’s perspective,this remains a gag order. I still get some people who say theycannot talk to us and they do not want to see their name in thepaper. We certainly feel that this constitutes an attempt to silencethe teachers in this area."

According to Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU inArkansas, public employees cannot be prohibited from speakingto the press.

"It is a violation of the First Amendment for a stateemployee to tell other state employees under his supervision notto talk to the public about matters of public concern," shesaid.