KANSAS — Reporters were barred from asking Attorney General William Barr questions at an Oct. 2 event at Wichita State (a public university). When a reporter tried to ask a question anyway, he was escorted out by police.
The event was a private roundtable discussion with Kansas law enforcement officials about federal, state and local law enforcement partnering together against gun, drug and gang-related crime.
Reporters were permitted to be in the room for a few minutes for prepared statements, but had to leave before the discussion started. They were told they could not ask questions. While reporters were packing up to leave following the statement, AP reporter John Hanna shouted a question to Barr, asking him if he had spoken to President Donald Trump about Ukraine.
Matthew Kelly, managing editor of The Sunflower, Wichita State’s student newspaper, covered the event and said Hanna was then escorted out by a city public relations officer. The rest of the press soon followed behind them.
“There was no excess force or anything,” Kelly said about the incident, “but the message was pretty clear: ‘We’re not going to subject the attorney general to your questions.’”
Public schools in general have limited ability to restrict press access on campus. However, Student Press Law Center Staff Attorney Sommer Ingram Dean said because the First Amendment gives journalists the right to question public officials, it also means officials have the right to just not answer.
“He’s not legally required to do so,” she said, “but it’s unfortunate that he did not.”
… the message was pretty clear: ‘We’re not going to subject the attorney general to your questions’
She added that even though the event took place in a public building, the Law Enforcement Training Center at Wichita State, it is not subject to open meeting laws. Barr also had the authority to remove reporters before the private roundtable to ensure sensitive law enforcement information or procedures were exposed.
Kelly said the press received just one day’s notice that Barr would be coming to campus. Later that evening, he learned that Barr would not be taking questions at the event.
Kelly, a senior, said it was disappointing that as a student journalist at a public university, he was not allowed to ask a public official a question, who was on campus discussing public law enforcement programs.
“At that point I had already spent a good several hours mulling over the most recent news trying to articulate whatever questions I might potentially want to ask if I was able to even get a chance to ask one question,” he said. “So it was kind of demoralizing to see that we weren’t going to be able to ask questions.”
He said questions needed to be asked regarding recent news stories — just days before Barr arrived in Kansas, The New York Times reported Trump pushed the Australian prime minister to work with Barr to gather information that would discredit the Mueller investigation.
Kelly had been excited about the chance to get the attorney general on the record about it.
“It’s just the kind of thing, that in a moment like this, you want to ask questions,” Kelly said. “You want to help just get to the heart of that narrative, and it was disappointing I wasn’t able to.”
Ingram Dean said Barr avoiding the press hurt the public, who have a right to question their public officials.
“Access to public officials is a crucial component to the way we run this nation,” she said. “It’s always disappointing when a public official preemptively shuts down meaningful dialogue that may come from questions members of the public or the press when, in fact, these officials should welcome any chance to assist the press in fulfilling its crucial duty as government watchdog.”
Kelly said just because Barr was likely to face questions surrounding Trump’s impeachment inquiry doesn’t mean he should avoid the press altogether.
It was kind of demoralizing to see that we weren’t going to be able to ask questions
“They didn’t want to have those questions because the questions would not be about combating violent crime. The questions would largely be about the current state of our political climate and the attorney general’s involvement,” Kelly said. “But it’s just vital that we have that opportunity to ask those questions.”
Kelly said he tried to track down Barr following the private roundtable but failed to get near him before he was rushed to his motorcade. Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, who had been part of the event, did stay afterwards and took questions, which Kelly reported was mostly centered around impeachment.
Because it was difficult to report on the discussion itself without access, Kelly said The Sunflower has filed a public records request into any expenditures or negotiations related to the attorney general’s visit.
SPLC reporter Joe Severino can be reached by email at email@example.com or by calling 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @jj_severino.
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