Oklahoma State revokes student journalist's sports credentials over Twitter dispute

OKLAHOMA — An Oklahoma State University student journalist who says the school’s athletics department revoked his sports credentials has decided to resign his sportswriting position rather than agree to restrictions imposed by the university.

Brendon Morris, who until Thursday was a reporter for O-State Illustrated, a website powered by Rivals.com, said the department revoked his football and basketball credentials on Oct. 21, three days after he retweeted a photo showing the set-up from OSU’s Homecoming & Hoops basketball celebration.

“Here’s a peek inside GIA (Gallagher-Iba Arena) as they finish up prep for the night. Highlights… On the floor!” read Morris’ tweet. The photo was a screenshot taken from an approximately 10-second video posted on Instagram that showed part of the planned light show.

After he posted the photo, Gavin Lang, the school’s assistant athletic director for media relations, demanded Morris disclose who gave it to him, Morris said. However, he declined to do so because he didn’t want the person, an OSU employee, to get reprimanded.

In an interview, sports information director Mike Noteware said Lang questioned Morris about the photo’s origins because employees were expressly told not to take photographs or recordings before the event took place. The school wanted details about what would happen that night to be kept “on the down low,” Noteware said.

Morris said he thought the school overreacted to the photo.

“I don’t feel like I let out any secrets or anything like that,” Morris said, adding that the photo was already publicly available on social media. In the days before Morris’ tweet, Lang himself tweeted a photo of the lighting display and posted a video showing a timelapse the lighting set-up.

Morris deleted his Twitter post after the conversation with Lang, but the department was concerned about why Morris chose not to immediately say where the photo originated, Noteware said. Morris later provided athletics department staff with screenshots that showed who posted the photo originally, he said.

Lang told Jeff Johnson, Morris’ editor, the credentials were revoked the Monday after the Homecoming celebration, Morris said. On Wednesday, the department offered to reinstate his credentials, but only on the condition that he refrain from posting on his Twitter account during games and other sports events. Morris resigned instead because he felt the restrictions on his social media posts were unfair, he said.

In an interview, Lang denied revoking Morris’ credentials. Noteware also denied the university had revoked the credentials, but said that Morris would only be credentialed if had he agreed to stop tweeting and had not resigned.

Noteware said Johnson came up with the idea for Morris to stop tweeting. Johnson said Thursday he would not comment on personnel matters.

Morris said he asked athletic department staff repeatedly why his credentials were being revoked because he didn’t think it was justified.

Lang told Morris in an email Thursday that a tweet quoting quarterback J.W. Walsh before last year’s home game against the University of Texas was his “biggest offense.”

As the team was exiting the tunnel area, Walsh gave Morris a fist-bump, Morris said. Morris asked him “are you ready?” and tweeted that Walsh told him he had “never been more ready in his life.” Morris deleted the tweet after Lang reprimanded him, he said.

“You went onto the field before the game — an off-limits area for those with media passes until after the game,” Lang wrote in his Thursday email. “You attempted to go into the team tunnel area, which is also off-limits. You posted a quote from a player from the field before the game, despite the fact that the media services sheets we put at every seat in the press box at every game say very clearly that players and coaches are not to be interviewed until the designated time for availability. That was the moment that you lost all benefit of the doubt.”

The only reason why Morris’ access wasn’t revoked at that time was because he was then a sportswriter at The Daily O’Collegian, OSU’s student newspaper, Lang wrote.

“If you worked for anyone else, you would have lost it right then and there,” he wrote.

Morris said other fans and reporters were in the area with him at the time.

Noteware said he would have had no issues with Morris’ coverage of the team under the proposed compromise. The access OSU gives beat reporters is for news writing purposes, with social media use during events being an “added bonus” of their jobs, he said.

“I was fine with (Morris not using Twitter) if that’s what it takes to kind of teach him a lesson,” Noteware said.

Kevin Goldberg, legal counsel for the American Society of News Editors, said a school not allowing a reporter to tweet is “highly unusual,” and that at first glance the situation appears to be a “calculated discrimination” against Morris’ First Amendment rights.=”#”>

“It’s a constant struggle to get the access you probably deserve,” Goldberg said, adding that schools often put news organizations in difficult positions when controversies arise. “The publication said we’d rather take a step back so we can get the credential. Whether or not you agree that these credentials are simply a contract … this seems to be a situation where they are really going over the line.”

Athletic departments today often have in-house coverage of their teams, which has decreased schools’ need to use outside media to promote their programs, Goldberg said. Reporters’ jobs depend on their ability to gain credentialed access, and schools have increasingly attempted to control their messages under the threat of revoking or sanctioning that access, he said.

“It’s something we’ve been grappling with for years,” Goldberg said. “Where do you draw the line between the university, league or entity’s ability to get their message across and a reporter’s First Amendment rights?”

Morris maintains his actions were always similar to those of other OSU beat writers, and he denies attempting to undermine the athletic department through his newsgathering methods.

“I definitely think it is personal and not professional,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense why anything I posted would be worth the loss of a credential.”

By Samantha Vicent, SPLC staff writer. Contact Vicent by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126. Disclosure: Vicent is a student at Oklahoma State University and a former Daily O’Collegian editor.