Marion County officials stirred up a hornet’s nest last week when they rolled out a new policy governing how the media may cover meetings and under what conditions reporters may interview county commissioners and other staffers.
The policy required media members to “coordinate with Marion County Public Relations prior to attendance of or coverage of any meetings;” restricted media from talking to county commissioners unless they coordinate with the public relations staff and restricted media from “recording” any portion of a meeting unless they are present and set up before the meeting begins.
There was more, but these were the most absurd provisions because, for starters, they conflict with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and years of legal precedent, not to mention Florida law.
The county, through the Public Relations staff was apparently reacting to an incident some weeks ago when a television news crew allegedly disturbed a meeting in progress to set up their equipment. And of course, the county would have been within their rights to henceforth prohibit conduct that disrupts a government meeting, but they went too far – much too far. They grossly overstepped their authority in prohibiting the press from even covering public meetings without the permission, essentially, of the Public Relations staff.
Too ironically, these new rules were issued during Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of the freedoms of the press enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment.
Local media outlets objected, and the county administration wisely and swiftly withdrew the policy and in its place issued more reasonable guidelines designed to prevent meeting interruptions, nothing more. We applaud the county administration and commissioners for their measured response to this issue.
Before this episode fades from memory, however, we’d like to take just a moment to reflect upon why it matters.
First, it is important to remember that we, the press, are extensions of you, the public. Our job is to go places you can’t or don’t care to go, learn things you don’t have the time to learn, and then report back to you so that you have all the information you need to participate fully in civic life and life in general.
To fulfill our obligation to you requires the ability to attend events and meetings, to scour public records and to talk to the community’s decision-makers. But from time to time, those in power in all levels of government find it more expedient, more useful, to limit what the public can see. They create rules and regulations designed to block the press from doing its job effectively.
We see it happening in recent weeks on the U.S. border with Mexico, where the federal government has barred the press from seeing and photographing the historic waves of immigrants suddenly rushing to the border. And we saw it here in little Ocala, where county staff promulgated rules that, if enforced literally, would have prevented your local press from reporting on Marion County government without the consent of those staffers.
These episodes are not so much an assault on the press as an assault on the public’s right to know how your government is functioning. They are at odds with the basic ideal that an informed citizenry is essential to a well-functioning democracy.
This ideal is becoming more difficult to attain as the numbers of media outlets and journalists dwindle. Yet it is an ideal we must work to uphold.
We will. And we applaud the Marion County commissioners and administrators who are doing so, too.