The Philadelphia School District is proposing a new media policy. It’s a ‘gag order,’ said one board member.
“Are they afraid to hear the truth of what’s going on in the school — how children are experiencing education, how our money is being spent?" said Kristin Luebbert, a Philadelphia teacher.
The Philadelphia School District is mulling a policy that would forbid any of its 20,000 employees from talking to the media unless staff from its central office signs off.
It’s a move that one school board member called “a gag order,” and the teachers union president said was “an authoritarian proposal” meant to curate the district’s image and silence whistleblowers who turn to the media when they can’t get help from the school system.
Changes to the district’s news media relations policy, discussed at a committee meeting last week, include language that says “staff members shall not give school information or interviews requested by news media representatives without prior approval of the Office of Communications.” It would also prohibit staff from sharing photographs taken inside school buildings.
Currently, district employees are asked to reach out to the communications office if contacted by a member of the media, but there is no board policy that requires them to do so. Employees also contact journalists on their own.
Monica Lewis, district spokesperson, said the proposed policy is not designed to impede the media’s work but to formalize the role the communications office plays in the school system. It’s “standard operating procedure for organizations everywhere,” Lewis said, crafted to show the district “in the best possible light.” Media requests will continue to be honored, she said.
Frank LoMonte, a law professor at the University of Florida and director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, said such a policy would be “an astonishingly unconstitutional thing to do. When you tell public employees that they are not free to speak about their work, you are engaging what the Supreme Court calls ‘prior restraint.’ ”
Lewis is right, LoMonte said — such policies are common in school districts. But it’s like underage drinking: common but still illegal. “Dozens and dozens of federal courts have struck down policies exactly like this one,” he said.
“It would discourage employees from whistleblowing, from bringing concerns about their workplace to light. This is a government agency; it is supposed to absorb criticism,” LoMonte said, adding that private companies are free to make such rules.
Board member Mallory Fix Lopez raised red flags about the policy.
“This, to me, is completely a gag order,” said Fix Lopez. “It seems like it’s micromanaging. It seems like it is distrusting our staff.”
She and other board members said the policy needs more work, including clarity around who constitutes the media and how requests at live events would work — for instance, could a high school basketball coach talk to a reporter after their team won a game?
Maria McColgan, chair of the policy committee and a doctor who has worked for several area hospitals and universities, said she saw the intent and usefulness of the proposed changes.
The policy change would not mean sanctions for employees who speak out without prior authorization, said Alicia Prince, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.’s chief of staff.
“There is no discipline that would happen. The policy doesn’t guide that,” Prince told the board last week.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said he was “absolutely outraged by the proposal to curtail our members’ ability to speak freely to the press” and said the union would work to make sure the changes do not pass.
“This subterfuge is an astonishing attempt to silence school staff — who are leading advocates for the schools our children deserve,” said Jordan. “Oftentimes, members speak out against the grave injustices our children experience, from understaffing to toxic school buildings. The authoritarian proposal is an abhorrent attempt to cover up concerns that are rightfully raised by members who are advocating for the working and learning conditions that all of our staff and children deserve.”
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “We haven’t seen language this restrictive in decades … This is censorship.”
PFT’s lawyer, Deborah Willig, said the union would be ready to take legal action if the policy is pursued.
For six years, Freda Anderson, a teacher at the U School, a North Philadelphia high school, notified district authorities about water damage — bubbling plaster and fine dust that bothered people with asthma and other breathing conditions. Crews would come out to fix the plaster, but never addressed the underlying condition. The problem got worse this year, and despite Anderson and others reporting an imminent hazard through multiple channels, she said nothing was done until part of her ceiling collapsed.
Frustrated, she reached out to The Inquirer. After a story ran, the ceiling and the root causes of the leak were tackled.
“This is the first time they ever fixed a real problem, and it was definitely because of the article,” said Anderson.
Anderson said the proposed policy is “fascist and dumb … This makes them look like super villains in a kid’s cartoon movie.”
Kristin Luebbert, a veteran district teacher, said the policy would make it tougher for the district to hire teachers and other workers.
“They can’t control my personal time, and they can’t control my thoughts about a matter of public interest,” said Luebbert, who also teaches at the U School. “Are they afraid to hear the truth of what’s going on in the school — how children are experiencing education, how our money is being spent? They don’t want information from the people that are actually doing the work.”
The policy will come before the board for a first reading in December, and could be adopted in January.