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Published: Monday, 5/3/2004

Managing the news, Part II

Toledo school board member Larry Sykes must not have been paying attention when Mayor Jack Ford was embarrassed last year for demoting a city supervisor who stole the mayor's news-conference thunder about a historic grave marker in a city cemetery.

Mr. Sykes, the school board's vice president, wants to install the same sort of ill-advised gag rule for employees of Toledo Public Schools. Judging from the negative response by other board members and TPS officials, his proposed no-talk policy will never be implemented.

And it shouldn't be.

Most businesses have strict rules about which employees may give out information to reporters. They can get away with it because they're private entities. But gagging workers for a tax-supported public body like a school system is a misguided policy that cannot be tolerated.

Limiting what public employees can say to the public via the media often turns into a public-relations disaster, anyway, partly because such policies come across as draconian attempts to discourage whistle-blowers. They also damage the credibility of the public institution wielding the gag, making taxpayers suspicious that there is something to hide.

TPS, with another tax levy coming up and the memory of the ill-advised $2,000 bonuses for top administrators still fresh in the public mind, simply cannot afford any more blows to its credibility.

The proposed gag rule, under which employees could be disciplined or even fired for talking to the news media without prior approval from the superintendent, was floated by Mr. Sykes at the board's policy committee meeting last week.

But the idea was subsequently disavowed by every other board member. Board President David Welch, who wasn't at the meeting, said, "Sometimes people speak and they don't have all the facts. But no way would we ever limit a person's right to speak to the press."

That's the way it's supposed to be under the American tradition of a free press, but Mr. Sykes wants strict controls, with a single person authorized to talk to the media when news breaks.

What he apparently does not understand is that news gathering is a craft that, as practiced by The Blade, cannot be limited to briefings and press conferences held at the convenience of public relations personnel. We reserve the right to talk to anyone who may have information to contribute at any time, including administrators, teachers, and students.

Trying to keep the lid on public information is a common tendency among public officials, usually growing out of an obsession with power, control, and secrecy. We see it, most famously, at the White House in Washington, D.C., and now at the school board office out on Manhattan Boulevard.

When we talk about the right of access to public information held by public officials paid from the public treasury, the key word is public.

They work for all of us, not the other way around.



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