By Tom Griscom
Publisher and Executive Editor
A fine line exists between journalists and those they cover.
Mayor Ron Littlefield’s recent decision to ban a Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter from any contact with city employees was more than a slap at a journalist.
Some may applaud the mayor for taking the news media to task; I hope not.
The implication of Mr. Littlefield’s action touches more than journalists.
While the Times Free Press disagrees with his decision, he certainly can make it. But if it is a journalist today, who will it be tomorrow?
What does it take to get on the mayor’s public banned list? Will the act of banishment also apply to citizens who may disagree with City Hall or ask difficult questions more than once of elected officials and unelected bureaucrats?
The encounter between the Times Free Press and City Hall is not about a single reporter. The appropriate question is whether government officials at any level should arbitrarily decide who has access to public decision makers and to the myriad of documents and e-mails that are records of those decisions.
In his news release announcing the Times Free Press reporter’s banishment from contact with city personnel, Mr. Littlefield stated the behavior in question was a result of the reporter’s being from Brooklyn. He meant that the reporter was “a Northerner” and did not use Southern courtesies —; a stark use of a code word for a business interested in relocating here or a new city resident or a student at one of the area’s colleges. If you are from “Brooklyn,” beware. This may be City Hall’s first foray into the immigration issue, establishing a geographic residency test to be welcomed here.
The New York Times published a story in its April 15 Web edition that addressed behavior by those who live in the New York area. For those who may not know, that is where Brooklyn is located.
Winnie Hu, a Times reporter, wrote, “But somehow a city whose residents have long been scorned for their churlish behavior is now being praised for adopting rules and laws that govern personal conduct, making New York an unlikely model for legislating courtesy and decorum.”
Mr. Littlefield referred on talk radio to the local reporter as being “dangerous.” The same label was hung on Rob Healy, former head of Parks and Recreation for the city who challenged the mayor’s decision to reassign him to Outdoor Chattanooga.
Mr. Littlefield again is within his rights to move or remove Mr. Healy, but the tag of “dangerous” appears to be synonymous with anyone who disagrees with City Hall.
Why is this important?
There is a chilling effect on public discourse if a fear exists that persistent questions, probing for information, even being somewhat abrasive will result in being shut out from those who make public decisions and allocate public tax dollars.
The Times Free Press expects its journalists to be professional in the way they conduct themselves. That does not mean not to ask tough, probing questions, press for public information and be persistent. Aggressiveness, however, is not the same as abuse. Mr. Littlefield assured this editor that the banished reporter did not use profanity or accuse him or anyone else of doing something unethical.
The decision to publicly admonish a Times Free Press reporter follows previous steps by City Hall to place new hurdles in the way of obtaining public records.
While the paper was reporting on the 911 call center, City Hall instituted a new policy to obtain public records. Any citizen, including the media, requesting a public record from city government would be required to fill out a form in advance. Failure to do so would result in the withholding of the information.
Tennessee law does not require a written request by a Tennessee resident to review a public document. Tennessee’s attorney general, Paul Summers, reinforced that position last week, stating that “record custodians must make all public records available for inspection during normal business hours,” according to The Associated Press.
In a letter to city officials, the Times Free Press provided this legal information. The newspaper uses its own standard, written form to request documents and to establish a record in the likelihood that court action is required. We will continue to do so.
Mr. Summers in the opinion released Monday stated that government agencies that violate the open records law can be ordered by the court to pay all legal costs.
The state law may not spell out these fines, but Mr. Summers wrote that the court may assess costs when officials “knew records were public and willfully refused to disclose them.”
The Times Free Press retains lawyers to gain access to public documents, but most citizens do not have the resources to sue their elected officials to receive the information that is supposed to be readily available during normal working hours.
Tennessee’s Open Records Law was established to provide citizens with unencumbered access to public information. When a newspaper like the Times Free Press challenges bureaucrats who throw new hurdles in the way, the result is not something that favors the media, but that opens the way for Chattanoogans to review and obtain public information.
Mr. Littlefield in his banishment announcement stated that he and his administration “have been very considerate of the media’s request in the past and will continue to do so in the future.”
I hope that is the case. But this issue is broader and touches on public access to government.
That is the chilling effect of this banishment of a journalist.
To reach Tom Griscom, call (423) 757-6472 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org