Connecting state and local government leaders
Kentucky agencies are restricting their workers’ interaction with the media—in some ways that are unconstitutional. It highlights a tension that has long existed between governments and news outlets. Plus, more news to use from around the country in this week's State and Local Roundup.
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We’d like to welcome you to the weekly State and Local Roundup. There’s plenty to keep tabs on, with Colorado giving elected officials the greenlight to block someone on social media, Illinois banning book bans, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez running for president, and the Oregon Senate walkout finally ending after six weeks. But first we’ll start with the government and the press.
The Louisville Courier Journal this week published a story that asked: Are Kentucky agencies blocking employees' free speech?
The story looked at 35 state agencies’ policies dealing with how public employees are allowed to engage with the press.
Reporters from the newspaper pulled research from the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, which found that courts in at least 20 jurisdictions have thrown out rules that put restrictions on public employees speaking to the news media, on the grounds they violated the free speech rights of those workers.
“But none of those rulings were issued in Kentucky or in the federal circuit it falls in,” reported the Courier Journal. “In fact, no court in Kentucky has ever ruled that restricting public employees' speech violates the First Amendment, which leaves local and state agencies free to gag the very people who may know best whether those agencies are doing their jobs.”
The Courier Journal found that 70% of the policies reviewed restrict or prohibit employees from talking to news outlets. The restrictions vary, but legal scholars the paper spoke to say some are unconstitutional.
One example of a policy that would likely not pass legal muster is the Louisville Metro Police's policy that says “no member will make statements that differ from existing policy or make statements of opinion concerning the existing policy.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System only requires that staff contacted by a member of the media refer the request to the institution’s public information officer or communications department.
The relationship between the press and government is inherently in conflict: Reporters feel like government officials are trying to keep information secret and politicians and bureaucrats feel like the press is misinterpreting what’s really going on.
Surveys by the Society of Professional Journalists have found that one of reporters biggest frustrations is getting past public information officers to talk to government officials. SPJ calls it “censorship by PIO.”
A survey of public information officers, meanwhile, conducted a decade ago by the National Association of Government Communicators and SPJ found that a majority “feel it is necessary to supervise or otherwise monitor interviews with members of their agency’s staff.” PIOs want to make sure journalists get the necessary background to write an accurate story, to avoid misquotes and to make sure the best source is being provided, according to the officials surveyed.
There is no doubt that that sentiment remains the same today, especially as the numbers of beat and statehouse reporters have generally decreased. It has made the job of communications officers a litte harder as they have to field questions from reporters who don’t necessarily know much about the issue they’re covering before they enter an interview.
But no matter how strained the relationship, it is an important one. Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment expert and former director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, wrote in 2019, “The public’s understanding of government, and of the industries regulated by government, suffers greatly when news coverage is limited to canned statements prepared by public relations professionals, whose information may be second-hand and ‘spun’ to emphasize the positive.”
What’s more, he wrote, “prohibiting government employees from sharing their candid observations isn’t just bad for journalism. It’s against the law. Although the practice of gagging public employees from giving unapproved interviews is pervasive across all levels of government, decades’ worth of First Amendment caselaw demonstrates that blanket restrictions on speaking to the media are legally unenforceable.”
Several years ago, John Verrico, who was then president of the National Association of Government Communicators, gave this advice to communications officials in government: Be honest. An agency may not come out smelling like roses, he said, but it is better to get ahead of a story. He advised spending more time internally advocating for media—convincing subject matter experts it is okay to talk and helping them stay focused.
Verrico’s advice to the media, “Trust is mutual,” he said. “Don’t hide your agenda—if we know what your story is really about, we can better help you. Don’t assume we are hiding something.”
Keep reading as there’s more news to use below, and make sure to come back here for the week’s highlights. If you don’t already and would prefer to get it in your inbox, you can subscribe to this newsletter here. We’ll see you next week.
News to Use
Trends, Common Challenges, Cool Ideas, FYIs, and Notable Events
- You’re blocked. Be careful what you say on a Colorado elected official's social media page. If they don't like it, they might block you—thanks to a new, first-of-its-kind state law. Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill into law on Monday giving all elected officials in the state the power to block someone from viewing or interacting with an official's social media pages—for any reason—effective immediately. The law applies to elected officials' personal social media accounts, even if they use them for official business, but not accounts that are attached to a specific political office or use government resources. The law comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to hear two cases regarding whether it is unconstitutional for elected officials to block people on social media.
- Illinois becomes the first state to ‘ban’ book bans. Gov. JB Pritzker signed a law on Monday that lets the state block library book restrictions, setting a nationwide precedent as schools and librarians across the country face a surge in book bans. The legislation allows Illinois to withhold state funding from libraries that do not follow American Library Association guidelines or that ban books. “Regimes ban books, not democracies,” said Pritzker at a press conference, adding that Illinois refuses “to let a vitriolic strain of white nationalism” determine “whose stories get told.”
- Supreme Court upholds Native American adoption law. The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a 1978 law aimed at keeping Native American adoptees with their tribes and traditions, handing a victory to tribes that had argued that a blow to the law would upend the basic principles that have allowed them to govern themselves for years. The case pitted a white foster couple from Texas against five tribes and the Interior Department as they battled over the adoption of a Native American child. Under the Indian Child Welfare Act, preference is given to Native families, a policy that the couple said violated equal protection principles because it hinges on placement based on race. Several states backed the Texas couple, arguing that the law intrudes on states’ ability to handle child welfare cases.
- Oregon Senate walkout finally ends. Republicans returned to the Senate on Thursday, ending a six-week walkout that had brought the legislature to a halt. In a major boon for Republicans, Democrats agreed to significant concessions, including key changes to controversial reproductive health care and gun control bills in order to convince the conservative senators to end the longest walkout in state history. Lawmakers now must rush to pass hundreds of bills before the legislative session ends June 25. Meanwhile, Democrats in the legislature crafted a bill that would ask voters to change the constitution, bringing Oregon in line with almost all other state legislatures that only require a simple majority of lawmakers to conduct business. It is meant to stop walkouts like the most recent one.
- Miami’s mayor is running for president. Mayor Francis Suarez launched his campaign Friday to run for the presidency of the United States. No mayor has ever won the presidency, but Miami’s 45-year-old Republican mayor is the first Hispanic in the race and believes he can broaden Republicans’ appeal nationally, especially to Hispanics. The part-time mayor is touting the city’s low crime rate and economic successes, but he has lately been dogged by news reports about a developer who hired him to allegedly secure permits for a stalled real estate project at the same time the developer was trying to win approval for a city project.
- Maryland revives the red line. State, federal and local officials led by Gov. Wes Moore vowed Thursday to build a Baltimore transit system canceled by the Hogan administration nearly eight years ago. The plan was to connect Bayview Hospital in east Baltimore with Woodlawn in western Baltimore County over a 14.1-mile light rail line. Gov. Larry Hogan approved the purple line project—the suburban D.C. line connecting Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties—but declared the Baltimore project “a boondoggle” and canceled it. The decision meant forgoing $900 million federal aid earmarked for the Red Line. It fulfills a campaign promise by Moore, but is unclear how it will be funded. Moore described the status of the project as an “examination phase.”
- States pass their own voting rights acts. With the U.S. Supreme Court weakening parts of the federal Voting Rights Act, states are increasingly looking to enact their own state-level protections, according to the Democracy Docket. Five states have enacted state-level VRAs. During the current legislative session, Democratic lawmakers have introduced VRAs in Connecticut, Maryland and New Jersey. State VRAs are distinct from other omnibus pro-voting bills because the latter generally do not create preclearance processes or strengthen the legal bases for challenging unfair election laws.
- Right to repair law runs into federal law. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a letter to nearly two dozen major automakers on Tuesday not to comply with a Massachusetts vehicle telematics law, saying it poses significant safety concerns. Instead, major automakers must comply with a federal vehicle safety law. Massachusetts was seeking to enforce a 2020 ballot initiative that revised the state’s 2013 “Right to Repair” law to require automakers to provide expanded access to mechanical and electronic repair data and allow independent shops to repair increasingly sophisticated technology. But the NHTSA said a malicious actor "could utilize such open access to remotely command vehicles to operate dangerously, including attacking multiple vehicles concurrently."
- 95,000 foster kids affected in data breach. The Minnesota Department of Education says some personal information of students was accessed as part of a data breach from a global cybersecurity attack. The breach involved computer file transfer software called MOVEit that is used to encrypt and transfer data and is used by companies and government agencies. Data from about 95,000 students placed in foster care across the state were accessed including information about demographics, dates of birth and the counties where they are placed.
Picture of the Week
The livestream is here, Pennsylvania.— Governor Josh Shapiro (@GovernorShapiro) June 15, 2023
To chart our progress and give everyone a sense of timing, we're launching our 24/7 livestream where you can watch I-95 get rebuilt.
Government is working for the good people of Pennsylvania. https://t.co/C10d2Z8SCt
“The livestream is here, Pennsylvania,” tweeted Gov. Josh Shapiro Thursday morning. “To chart our progress and give everyone a sense of timing, we're launching our 24/7 livestream where you can watch I-95 get rebuilt.” The video launched as crews completed the first step in repairing the collapsed section of Interstate 95 in Philadelphia—demolishing the damaged southbound portion of the highway. Now, the rebuilding begins. The state has said they will use recycled glass—a lightweight, gravel-like substance that weighs about one-sixth as much as regular soil—to create a temporary six-lane highway in the damaged section that drivers can use while a new bridge is created. It isn’t yet clear how long it will take to create the new temporary roadway, or to complete the rebuilding process in full. But state officials have several past incidents to draw on for guidance.
Government in Numbers
The percentage that Californians reduced their water use between July 21, when California Gov. Gavin Newsom first called on residents to voluntarily cut back, and March of this year, when he rescinded that request amid a very wet winter. It fell far short of Newsom’s request to reduce water use by 15%, which came as California endured its three driest years on record. The 7% amounts to about 9 fewer gallons per person per day, a Los Angeles Times analysis has found. Many experts were critical of Newsom’s voluntary stance throughout the drought, arguing that he should have made cuts mandatory, like his predecessor Jerry Brown, who ordered a 25% reduction during the 2012-16 drought. Residents reached just shy of that goal, reducing water use by 24.5%.
A Model for Reducing Female Incarceration and Breaking the Generational Cycle
A program in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has been changing lives for addicted women and their children. Here’s how it works.
BY KATHERINE BARRETT & RICHARD GREENE
A New Map Could Mean Less Money to Expand Broadband for Some States
The revised map that shows where there is little to no internet service in the U.S. comes as the feds are about to distribute nearly $42.5 billion in broadband funding.
BY KERY MURAKAMI
States Need Better Tech, Training to Keep Repeat Drunk Drivers off the Roads
Lacking adequate resources, states are often unable to provide complete criminal histories to the FBI’s databases, which are critical resources for reducing impaired driving by repeat offenders, according to a new GAO report. BY SUSAN MILLER
New Map Shows How Common Train Derailments Are
Few are as dangerous as the one in East Palestine, but city advocates hope the online tool showing the location of thousands of derailments will underscore the need for a federal safety law.
BY DANIEL C. VOCK
Governor Paves the Way for an 'AI Bill of Rights'
The Connecticut legislation calls for an inventory of the technology’s use in government and establishes an artificial intelligence working group to make recommendations.
BY CHRIS TEALE
Housing Still Isn't Affordable forMinimum-Wage Workers, Report Says
The finding comes even as cities and states have raised the minimum wage over the past few years.
BY MOLLY BOLAN
Better Data Sharing Begins With Dispelling Staff Mistrust
Ensuring that employees understand data-sharing agreements and are comfortable with the terminology will build the trust they need to learn to use data effectively, experts say.
BY CHRIS TEALE
The Debt Deal Casts Doubt on Whether Congress Will Fully Fund the CHIPS Act
The Commerce Department has made available $500 million in its $11 billion effort to create regional technology and innovation hubs in small rural communities across the country.
BY KERY MURAKAMI