United States Project

A reporter’s arrest is just the latest reason to worry about press freedom in Missouri

July 8, 2016

Last week, Fox 2 St. Louis reporter Chris Hayes was placed in handcuffs by police for attempting to bring a camera into a public meeting in Kinloch, Missouri—a small municipality right next door to Ferguson—just a day after Hayes had revealed stunning mismanagement by the town’s police force. In a segment for Fox 2, Hayes reported that he was charged with disorderly conduct and failure to comply, and faces a September court date.

Based on that report—neither Hayes and Fox 2, nor the Kinloch police and court responded to requests for further information this week—the incident appears to be an unusually egregious abridgment of press freedom. But, sadly, that’s not an isolated event in Missouri. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence—ranging from arrests of reporters to new legal obstacles to mundane but persistent restrictions on access—that the Show-Me State has a serious problem with secrecy, and even outright hostility to the functions of the Fourth Estate. Consider:

  • In 2014, several reporters were arrested while covering the protests following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. It took nearly two years before St. Louis County finally dropped the charges against Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post and Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post—a case that CJR press freedom correspondent Jonathan Peters called “a remarkable low point for government harassment of the press.” Four other reporters arrested in Ferguson won a settlement with the county in May after suing over alleged First and Fourth Amendment violations.
  • In 2013, the state Department of Corrections placed the suppliers of drugs used for lethal injections under the “black hood” law shielding the execution team—a move that put people who engaged in or facilitated reporting on Missouri’s controversial death-penalty protocols in legal jeopardy, even as the state put a series of inmates to death in quick succession. Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon “won” a Golden Padlock award from Investigative Reporters and Editors for his administration’s efforts to keep execution protocols under wraps. St. Louis Public Radio, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Kansas City Star, and other media outlets and advocates have been tied up in court battles for years attempting to bring the state’s execution methods to light. In March, a state judge ruled that the department had violated the Sunshine Law in denying media outlets access to records revealing the execution-drug suppliers, although the state has appealed the decision.
  • In 2012, Missouri lawmakers passed an “ag-gag” law that required whistle-blowers who spot instances of animal abuse to report violations within 24 hours—making it as difficult as possible for activists and news organizations alike to conduct long-term investigations into possible abuse.
  • In 2015, a former employee of the state Department of Natural Resources wrote an open letter in which he described the arrival of “information control” in state government. That bolstered complaints from longtime statehouse journalists about the restrictions imposed by Gov. Nixon’s administration on media access to officials with expertise in areas such as public health. “If it is an agency that is under control of the governor, getting access to officials is impossible,” says Phill Brooks, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri journalism school and statehouse correspondent for KMOX. (An administration official pushed back against such complaints to CJR last year, saying that experts are made available to the public when “appropriate,” but did not dispute that access is controlled by a centralized communications staff.)
  • In January, the first vote of the state Senate’s 2016 session was to kick the press corps out of its longtime perch on senate floor, apparently because a top lawmaker was angered that a reporter had tweeted a conversation between legislators on the floor. Last week, meanwhile, a state appeals court ruled that an advocacy group had no right to make its own recordings of public committee hearings in the Senate.

Then there’s the perhaps the most infamous episode in this litany: the interference with journalists who sought to cover student protests at the University of Missouri campus. The aftermath of that case showed that state officials could rouse themselves to selective outrage in defense of the First Amendment, under particular circumstances. More than 100 Republican state legislators took the lead in condemning a faculty member who was caught on tape asking for “some muscle” to evict a journalist from a public space; the legislators demanded that she be fired, even threatening the school’s funding.

There was, unsurprisingly, no such outcry from state lawmakers after the arrest last week in Kinloch.

Is Missouri uniquely bad in this regard? It’s hard to say, in large part because the bar is set pretty low. The Center for Public Integrity’s 2015 state integrity investigation offers a fairly brutal assessment of the state, citing lax ethics laws, legislators’ cozy relationships with lobbyists, and sparse enforcement of the public’s right to access open records, but still puts Missouri in the middle of the pack overall. Other states have passed ag-gag laws and imposed secrecy around the death penalty; other cities have sued people for posting video recordings of council meetings. In recent months, journalists have been arrested after seeking open records in Georgia and Louisiana. At the federal level, the Obama administration has not followed through on its promises of a new era of transparency. In the presidential race, the University of Missouri’s Brooks points out, Donald Trump is openly hostile to media and Hillary Clinton is “virtually inaccessible.”

But it’s clear that Missouri has a problem—one that extends to both political parties, at every level of government.

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Brooks, who has covered the state’s government since the 1970s, says “there is a fear that public officials have today that I never sensed four decades ago.

“Are we entering into a new era in which public officials and political figures don’t feel responsible to provide access to a free media?” he wonders. “Have they decided to simply write us off?”

Let’s hope not. And if there’s going to be change for the better, it should start at the top—in the capital. If those 100-plus Missouri legislators are sincere in their desire to support the First Amendment, they could do a lot more than help to end the career of one wayward assistant professor. They could speak out with equal or greater vehemence against abuses of police power to curb the rights of journalists. They could pass legislation explicitly subjecting themselves to the Sunshine Law; amend the law to clear up any ambiguities over whether cameras are allowed at public meetings; restore press access to the Senate floor; demand that the governor’s office allow press access to experts and reveal its execution protocols; repeal the ag-gag law; and establish an independent enforcement body, like the public information board in neighboring Iowa, to resolve issues with open-records and open-meetings law.

None of these moves by themselves will erase the culture of secrecy that has become all too prevalent in Missouri and nationwide. But if those in the corridors of power don’t demonstrate a respect for transparency and the First Amendment, there’s little reason to expect university employees or small-town cops to do any better.

Deron Lee is CJR’s correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.