University of Kentucky Athletics takes heat for pulling student reporter’s access

The University of Kentucky is facing backlash after the UK athletics department punished the Kernel student newspaper by revoking its invitation to a special media event.

After freshman forward Anthony Davis circulated a Twitter post welcoming walk-ons Brian Long and Sam Malone to the team Sunday night, Kernel managing editor Aaron Smith wanted to confirm the news from the players. The next day he looked up their phone numbers in the school directory and asked them two things, said Kernel Editor-in-Chief Taylor Moak.

“He called them on their cell phones and he asked, ‘Are you confirmed on the basketball team,’ and they said ‘yes,’ and he said ‘can I interview you later?’ and they said ‘no,’ and that was the end of it,” Moak said.

Later that day, Smith was told by DaWayne Peevy, associate athletic director of media relations, the paper was no longer invited to a special one-on-one media interview with the players the next day. At issue was the second question he asked — setting up an interview without going through media relations violated the department’s media guidelines.

“But our stance,” Moak said, “is that Aaron called them not knowing if they were student athletes, and any good journalist is going to ask to keep talking to their source.”

And, indeed, the basketball team roster on the athletics department website still hasn’t been updated with the additions of Long and Malone.

In an interview with the Kernel, Peevy called the team interviews “a reward to, basically, a preferred group of people to give them special access.” Peevy said he chose not to reward Smith because he broke from the athletic department’s interview policy.

Student Press Law Center attorney Adam Goldstein said Peevy’s actions boil down to a single question.

“People seem to be struggling with the nuances of athletic regulations, but the simple question at the core is: Can the government punish someone for asking a question?” Goldstein said. “Any answer that defends Media Relations for what they did here requires you to answer in the affirmative. The idea that punishing people for asking questions should ever be OK is irreconcilable with any First Amendment precedent in history.”

The Kernel editors decided Monday evening to report on the situation, and the journalists were in contact with the Student Press Law Center for their story.

The story picked up significant attention online, and overnight #FreeKernel had become a topic on Twitter. The controversy also drew the attention of national media outlets and multiple press organizations.

Michael A. Anastasi, president of the Associated Press Sports Editors, released a statement chastising Peevy, calling the move “disturbing on many levels.” Additionally, Hollis Towns, president of the Associated Press Managing Editors, wrote in a letter to Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart that the action “amounts to no less than an attempt to bully the newspaper into submission and to censor news concerning operations of the University of Kentucky athletic department.”

The Kernel staff is certainly aware of the sudden spotlight cast on the paper. With the attention came a mix of ire and apathy from media advocates and fans alike, and the Kernel followed up the initial report with a second news story and a column on the opinions page.

Moak said the “punishment” for circumventing media relations extended as far as the event Tuesday, and the relationship between Kernel and media relations will “continue as usual.”

“Just moving forward,” Moak said, “we hope UK keeps its promise to continue treating us like professional journalists, because that’s how we want to be treated.”