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Mo. university paper battles restrictive media policy

April 6, 2010

MISSOURI --Missouri Southern State University's student newspaper is bumping up against a newly enforced media policy that strictly controls access to the public university's administrators and faculty members.

First issued in June 2008 but not enforced until last week, the policy designates Director of University Relations Rodney Surber to answer all media questions regarding the university and set up all interviews between university employees and the press, said Brennan Stebbins, editor-in-chief of the MSSU Chart,.

"All of a sudden the sources that we rely on are unavailable and we've been told to go through the public relations on campus, which I think hurts our credibility because we can't get information from primary sources anymore," Stebbins said.

Surber said the policy will increase efficiency because he can directly answer questions about university policies and provide media the official university position on public matters.

"Our goal is just to seek the cooperation and collaboration of the campus in helping present the university's messages and protect the university's reputation," Surber said.

The policy applies primarily to university officials, Stebbins said. The press can contact faculty members for interviews about their expertise, but the faculty must report to university relations about the interview and any matters on university policy have to go through the university relations office first.

This policy is not meant to stifle employee speech, rather "it is important and helpful for us to know what the faculty are saying in public and who those spokespeople are for those issues so we can give the media those contacts a lot faster," Surber said.

How the university will enforce the policy, and whether they will reprimand those who do not follow it, is unknown at this time, Stebbins said.

Faculty members at public universities have different employment relationships than at traditional businesses and, "it would be silly for me to try to control [free speech] nor would I want to because I think [a difference in opinion] is important and extremely valuable and essential for universities," Surber said.

Last week, the Chart filed an open records request under Missouri's Freedom of Information Act for the university president's business e-mails, Stebbins said. Following the request, the university began enforcing the policy, he said.

"I think some people on this campus have the viewpoint that especially with the press, this university has had in the past couple months, the less publicity now the better," Stebbins said. Last fall there was a vote by the faculty that showed no confidence.

Surber said the university's president is extremely busy and the policy will help the president manage the media requests

"I understand the desire to speak to the chief executive officer but sometimes he or she would not have the specific information that a representative is looking for," Surber said.

The Chart plans to file more open records requests for the university's documents to continue to gather information from primary sources and compensate for officials that refuse to comment, said Stebbins.

"[The policy] will effect everyone involved in this university because people want to know what the [administrators] running this school think, and when these people make themselves unavailable then that information doesn't get out and people are unsure about where the university is heading," Stebbins said.

By Laura Dobler, SPLC staff writer

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© 2010 Student Press Law Center

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