Mo. university paper battles restrictive media policy

MISSOURI –Missouri Southern StateUniversity’s student newspaper is bumping up against a newly enforced mediapolicy that strictly controls access to the public university’s administratorsand faculty members.

First issued in June 2008 but not enforced until lastweek, the policy designates Director of University Relations Rodney Surber toanswer all media questions regarding the university and set up all interviewsbetween university employees and the press, said Brennan Stebbins,editor-in-chief of the MSSU Chart,.

“All of a sudden the sources that we rely on areunavailable and we’ve been told to go through the public relations on campus,which I think hurts our credibility because we can’t get information fromprimary sources anymore,” Stebbins said.

Surber said the policy will increase efficiencybecause he can directly answer questions about university policies and providemedia the official university position on public matters.

“Our goal is just to seek the cooperation andcollaboration of the campus in helping present the university’s messagesand protect the university’s reputation,” Surber said.

The policy applies primarily to university officials,Stebbins said. The press can contact faculty members for interviews about theirexpertise, but the faculty must report to university relations about theinterview and any matters on university policy have to go through the universityrelations office first.

This policy is not meant to stifle employee speech,rather “it is important and helpful for us to know what the faculty aresaying in public and who those spokespeople are for those issues so we can givethe media those contacts a lot faster,” Surber said.

How the university will enforce the policy, andwhether they will reprimand those who do not follow it, is unknown at this time,Stebbins said.

Faculty members at public universities have differentemployment relationships than at traditional businesses and, “it would besilly for me to try to control [free speech] nor would I want to because I think[a difference in opinion] is important and extremely valuable and essential foruniversities,” Surber said.

Last week, the Chart filed an open recordsrequest under Missouri’s Freedom of Information Act for the universitypresident’s business e-mails, Stebbins said. Following the request, theuniversity began enforcing the policy, he said.

“I think some people on this campus have the viewpointthat especially with the press, this university has had in the past couplemonths, the less publicity now the better,” Stebbins said. Last fall there was avoteby the faculty that showed no confidence.

Surber said the university’s president isextremely busy and the policy will help the president manage the mediarequests

“I understand the desire to speak to the chiefexecutive officer but sometimes he or she would not have the specificinformation that a representative is looking for,” Surbersaid.

The Chart plans to file more open recordsrequests for the university’s documents to continue to gather information fromprimary sources and compensate for officials that refuse to comment, saidStebbins.

“[The policy] will effect everyone involved in thisuniversity because people want to know what the [administrators] running thisschool think, and when these people make themselves unavailable then thatinformation doesn’t get out and people are unsure about where the university isheading,” Stebbins said.