Emporia State University officials kicked reporters out of a public forum on race Thursday — a move the university acknowledges likely violated the First Amendment and Kansas open meetings laws.
Reporters were allowed back into the event — which the university had publicized with news releases beforehand — after its general counsel advised university officials to do so.
Emporia State’s attempt to block the media from its forum on race follows a national controversy that erupted when University of Missouri faculty members blocked student journalists from covering a student protest against racism on campus. Last week, the University of Kansas kept broadcast journalists from recording a forum on race.
“Basically we had some miscommunication,” said Gwen Larson, a spokeswoman for Emporia State. “We had some students that somehow had been told media would not be present at the forum. That had not been our intent. We had actually publicized the forum.”
We had some students that somehow had been told media would not be present at the forum. That had not been our intent.
Gwen Larson, spokeswoman for Emporia State University
Larson said that when students voiced discomfort with the media’s presence, a consultant advising the university closed the forum and asked the media to leave.
“When I ended up consulting with our general counsel he did concur that it was a public forum and that media should be allowed into it and there were some media outlets that went back into the room,” Larson said.
“It is a balancing act. Obviously, we fully support the First Amendment, the rights of the public and the press. On the other hand, we need and want our students to feel safe to express their concerns, share their experiences,” she said. “So we need to in the future to find a way that balances both of those.”
Larson said the university may offer students an alternative way to express themselves if they don’t feel comfortable doing so in front of the media, such as submitting anonymous letters.
Kent Cornish, executive director of the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, said it would be very difficult for the university to “defend any situation where they would ban reporters from a forum that’s been widely publicized.”
The university’s decision to kick out reporters and then let them back in about an hour later was captured in a string of tweets from WIBW cameraman Doug Brown, who said Emporia State official promise the university “will work to make future events run more smoothly.”
Last week, KU officials told Kansas Public Radio and other broadcast outlets that journalists were welcome to attend a forum on diversity, but that they could not bring audio or video recording equipment into the event.
“We didn’t want people to feel like they had a camera right on them when they were having a conversation. … It was just about we wanted people to be comfortable,” said Joe Monaco, KU’s director of strategic communications. He acknowledged that this is not something KU normally does for public events.
KPR’s news director, J. Schafer, questioned this logic. He said many students recorded the event on their smartphones and some streamed it on the Web app Periscope.
Activists presented university officials with a list of demands at the forum, including that the university establish mandatory inclusivity training, but refused to talk to reporters until this week.
We’re going to go to the next forum and we’re going to record it. And if they want to call security to kick us out that will become part of the story.
J. Schafer, KPR news director
“You don’t have sole rights to our pain,” said Caleb Stephens, a member of Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk, when asked about the group’s reluctance to engage in the media.
The forum was held on Veterans Day, a day when most of KPR’s reporters were off and a student intern was scheduled to report the story. When Schafer saw the e-mail from KU’s public affairs office about barring recording equipment, he said he called his intern off the story rather than put him in a contentious situation.
“But had I been here, I would have said, yes, call the cops on me, I’m recording this thing because it’s a public space,” said Schafer, who has made his frustrations known to university officials. “We’re going to go to the next forum and we’re going to record it. And if they want to call security to kick us out, that will become part of the story.”