Stung by “secret society” story, Pitt SG clamps down on media access

PENNSYLVANIA — The University of Pittsburgh’s student government tightened its media access guidelines this week, following a series of stories from the student newspaper about potential secret influences on its membership.

The new rules dictate that journalists must check in with the student government office assistant and may not proceed into “personal areas” of the office without being invited. Further, all interviews in the office must “adopt an open-door/open-area policy,” according to a memo from the group.

Pitt News Editor-in-chief Amy Friedenberger said she’s certain the change in policy is a result of a two-part series The Pitt News published for which the paper “pushed very aggressively for comment from the board members.” The second story, published last week, exposed two-thirds of SGB as members of the Druids, a secret society on campus, and questioned their disproportionate political influence on policymaking.

The Druids were formed as a philanthropic group in the early 1920s. In the 1990s, they withdrew into secrecy, donning black robes and hoods and refusing to release the names of the society’s membership, the paper reported. The Pitt News series outs 18 members of Druids, citing anonymous sources.

Before Tuesday, the student government office, housed just a few floors above the newspaper in the same building, was“generally a very open office” in which reporters could simply walk in and talk to someone, Friedenberger said. She said some board members are known to be more candid in criticizing decisions SGB makes, and they are known to both student media and the board.

“I could just go up and if I saw them I’d be just kind of like, ‘hey, I have a question,’” she said. Since the memo, she said, “It’s just kind of an uncomfortable environment. Everyone has to speak to everyone else.”

Members of the student government board were not available for comment because they were studying for finals, an office secretary said.

Friedenberger said she thinks the policy change only adds to the board’s perceived lack of transparency and could create hurdles for future reporting: “It’s just a way for them to hide in their cubicles.”

“I think the board members that want to speak out will still seek us out,” she said. “I think that for the board members who maybe want to make decisions the public is upset with … beyond just their standard statements, it’ll be a lot more of a challenge to get to them.”

By Daniel Moore, SPLC staff writer. Contact Moore by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.