Cover city hall, go to jail? SPJ regional director throws down media access challenge

2018-06-12T19:49:31+00:00 June 12th, 2018|Categories: News, Politics|Tags: , , |

A Broward County based journalist is promising airfare, hotel and a car rental to reporters willing to attempt to cover a town council meeting in rural Alabama.

The catch? Tiny Paint Rock recently passed a number of rules prohibiting the media or outsiders from doing just that — in direct contravention with the state’s Open Meeting Act. But no worries: Michael Koretzky, who serves as a Society of Professional Journalists’ regional director, has promised bail money if needed.

In a posting Monday on the “Sizing Up The South” blog, he wrote down his reasons:

Paint Rock (population: 210) is a speck of a town in Alabama’s northeast corner. It’s a 30-minute drive to Tennessee and an hour to Georgia.

Like a lot of small towns, it’s run by small minds. Last week, the city council passed some new rules that China would recognize and Venezuela would applaud…

  1. If you don’t live in Paint Rock, you can’t attend any city meetings: “Anyone not residing in the town limits, or anyone not owning property within the town limits will not be permitted without prior approval of the council.”
  2. Reporters need permission: “Members of the media, i.e.: newspaper, television, radio, etc. will not be allowed without prior approval from the council majority. When asking for approval, you must present a valid reason/justification for the media to attend.”
  3. No one can record anything: “Recording of any meeting of the town council is not permitted.”
  4. Can’t share public documents, either: “Posting of any Town minutes, email to council members, financial statements, etc., to ANY unauthorized media source is strictly forbidden.”

In the post, Koretzky quotes media attorney Frank LoMonte, who says such policies are “outlandishly contrary to state law” and are seemingly begging for a lawsuit. 

Calls to Paint Rock Mayor Brenda Fisk as well as emails to Jackson County Commissioner Mike Sisk, whose district includes the town, were not returned.

But in an interview earlier this month with the editor and publisher of the Jackson County Sentinel, Brandon Cox, Fisk said that “what goes on in Paint Rock is the business of the people who live in Paint Rock.”

In an interview Tuesday, he said that though the mayor’s intentions aren’t clear, all signs seems to point to a former council member who criticized the town’s leadership on social media.

He said he hopes coverage of the issue will convince the council to reverse course.

“We’re hoping the town will do the right thing,” Cox said.

For his part, Koretzky said fighting such censorship requires direct action.

“I usually found that the only way to send public records and public meetings is to do something about it and not [just] talk about it,” he said.

Koretzky said small towns often censor or ignore laws because few are watching, and that he hopes his offer spurs action in areas both rural and urban.

Additionally, he said his goal is to help younger journalists, who often start their work in small towns.

“I don’t want them to face these issues,” he said.

At least one Florida International University student has decided to apply. Victoria Salas currently serves as the South Florida News Service’s assistant managing editor.

“It’s a journalistic adventure protecting the freedom of the press,” she said.

— Kristen Torres and Steve Guillen, South Florida News Service