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First Amendment trumps employer media policies

I interviewed for a job once where the supervisor told me about the company’s media policy: not allowing anyone except the “communications specialist” to talk to the news media if they called. I know that many public departments, such as police and fire departments, have public information officers who know more the legalities of what information they can release and when. But this was a private company. Is it legal to gag employees in this way? — A Fan of the First Amendment

You wouldn’t happen to be a former journalist, would you? It’s not often that we run into folks who love their right to speak...oh, wait. Glancing at our Facebook page comment section, maybe we do.

We’ll turn to the expertise of Frank LoMonte, a passionate defender of First Amendment rights who leads the Brechtner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communication. He wrote on this topic earlier this year.

The short answer, in many cases, is no, thanks to the rights enshrined not only in the First Amendment, but also the National Labor Relations Act, he wrote.

The National Labor Relations Board has interpreted that law to apply not only to workers’ protected ability to organize to improve working conditions, but also to their ability to speak to journalists without clearing it with an administrator in advance.

Federal court and the NLRB have both rejected multiple companies’ media relations policies as unconstitutional, including in a November 2018 ruling that Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems wrongfully fired an employee who wrote a letter to editor without requesting permission from management.

“When rank-and-file employees are unable to discuss their work with journalists, the public’s understanding suffers,” LoMonte wrote in his column published by Poynter in January. “A prepared statement from a public-relations office is no substitute for the subject-matter knowledge of the engineer, computer scientist or nurse who is working on the front lines.”

We in the news media work with communications specialists like the person at the company you interviewed with, and many times, they are willing to work with journalists and eager to help. Often, we are connected quickly to those on the front lines, as LoMonte referenced. But sometimes, we have to push hard, and employees are barred from speaking to us.

But if you were to be reprimanded or face consequences at your job for speaking with any of us at Since You Asked World Headquarters, or for writing a letter to the editor identifying yourself as an employee, there’s a good chance the law is on your side.

Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@rosebudmedia.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.