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Photo: It's Our City via Flickr
The School District of Philadelphia is in hot water for considering a new press policy for employees. Photo: It's Our City via Flickr

The Philly School District wants to approve before employees speak to the press… it hasn’t gone over well

The district has been mulling the change in policy. Currently, employees are able to contact reporters on their own.

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The Philadelphia Board of Education is considering a proposal that would require all school district employees to get approval from the district’s communications office before speaking to the media. 

The immediate response has been negative.

During a committee meeting last week, board member Mallory Fix-Lopez called the proposal a “gag order.” The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said in a tweet that the proposed revised policy represented “egregious and reprehensible attempts” to limit its members’ ability to speak to the media, and promised to review its legality. 

Changes to the news media relations policy include language that says “staff members shall not give school information or interviews requested by news media representatives without prior approval of the Office of Communications.” It would also prohibit staff from sharing any photos taken inside of school buildings. 

Currently, district employees are asked to reach out to the communications office if contacted by the press, but there is no board policy requiring them to do so. Employees are also able to contact reporters on their own. 

Frank LoMonte, a law professor at the University of Florida and director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that this policy would be shockingly unconstitutional. 

“When you tell public employees that they are not free to speak about their work, you are engaging in what the Supreme Court calls ‘prior restraint,’” LoMonte said. 

Lisa Haver, president of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, told the board that teachers and staff do not “surrender their Constitutional rights” when they become employees of the district.

Monica Lewis, however, a district spokesperson, doesn’t see where the confusion is coming from. Lewis told Chalkbeat Philadelphia that the proposal is standard operating procedure.

“Any person who has worked for the district, we’re asking that they let us know when they’ve been contacted by the media,” Lewis said.

Lewis said employees won’t be reprimanded for talking to the media without her office’s permission, but the revised language doesn’t address consequences for violating the policy.

Board spokesperson Janice Hatfield told Chalkbeat that the policy is a “framework to guide the superintendent who will create a procedure that could or could not include disciplinary action.” 

The public will have two more chances to comment on the proposal. It will be discussed again in December and will come before the board for a vote in January. 

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan told the Inquirer that the proposal would hinder its members’ ability to freely speak to the press, and that the union would work to make sure the changes do not pass. 

“Oftentimes, members speak out against the grave injustices our children experience, from understaffing to toxic school buildings. The authoritarian proposal is an abhorrent attempt to cover up concerns that are rightfully raised by members who are advocating for the working and learning conditions that all of our staff and children deserve,” Jordan said. 

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