Philly School District reviewing proposed media approval requirement for employees

Some board members argue policy is ‘completely a gag order’

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The School District of Philadelphia is taking a second look at a proposed policy that would require employees to get central office approval before speaking to the news media, after school board members questioned the policy’s language and intent.

The proposed revision to Policy 911 states, “Staff members shall not give school information or interviews requested by news media representatives without prior approval of the Office of Communications.”

District Deputy Chief of Communications Monica Lewis told the school board’s policy committee Thursday that it was the responsibility of her office to safeguard the district’s image, so they wanted to ensure the district was presented in the best way possible.

“We do not tell staff not to talk. We simply want to work with our staff to make sure that the messaging is correct,” Lewis explained. “No staff member can say that we’ve not allowed them to speak. We simply want to make sure that what is being said is true and accurate and reflects the district in the best possible light.”

“I appreciate that idea of trying to manage things,” countered board member Mallory Fix Lopez. “This, to me, is completely a gag order. It seems like it’s micromanaging. It seems like it is distrusting our staff.”

“In no way is this meant to be a gag order,” Lewis replied. “It’s simply meant to do just what our job description describes: manage media engagement.”

Fix Lopez asked policy committee chair Maria McColgan how media was defined. She said: “Any sort of interaction with the media is an interview.”

“So if the local neighborhood association says, ‘Tell me about the bake sale for the pies that are coming out for Thanksgiving,’ they’re not allowed to talk to them?” Fix Lopez asked.

“The neighborhood association is not a member of the media,” McColgan said.

“They put out newsletters!” Fix Lopez argued.

McColgan noted that it was standard practice at universities and hospitals for staff to contact the communications office before speaking to the media.

Board member Reginald Streater said he believed the policy could work, but it needed to differentiate between when employees were speaking in an official role and when they were expressing a personal opinion. Board member Lisa Salley said she also saw the intent of the policy, but decentralized models work as well.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers tweeted that it would fight the district’s “egregious and reprehensible” attempt to limit employees’ ability to speak to the media.

“People do not give up their constitutional right when they become employees of the school district,” added retired teacher Lisa Haver during the meeting’s public portion.

Alicia Prince, the superintendent’s chief of staff, told the board that the administration would take another look at the proposal.

“We’ll review this with legal to determine what we have the ability to make clarifications around,” she said.​

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