On Kentucky Basketball, Media Credentials, and the First AmendmentPosted by nvr1983 on August 30th, 2011
Late last night an article from The Kentucky Kernel and a series of tweets ignited a media firestorm about how media credentials are handled. The article, which was written by the UK student newspaper’s managing editor Becca Clemons, told the story of how the daily newspaper had its credentials revoked for today’s special media session where each journalist was allowed to speak with every player on the team as part of a series of one-on-one interviews. According to Clemons, the story began when Kentucky‘s star freshman Anthony Davis sent out a pair of tweets welcoming Sam Malone and Brian Long as new members of this year’s basketball team. Prior to these two tweets there was no public knowledge that the two had been invited to be walk-on members of the team.
Soon after this, Kernel reporter Aaron Smith contacted Malone and Long by cell phone after obtaining their numbers through Kentucky’s public student directory. When asked whether or not they were on the team, both players acknowledged that they were even though it had not been formally announced by the athletic department, but declined interview requests from Smith. Upon hearing of Smith’s contact with the two players, DeWayne Peevy, Kentucky’s associate athletic director of media relations, revoked the credentials he had granted Smith and the newspaper to the event, which was to be attended by only 14 media outlets including a marketing firm. In her editorial, Clemons asserted that this decision violated Smith’s First Amendment rights and cited a Louisville lawyer who represents the Kentucky Press Association who stated, “the very fact that they don’t like the way you’re exercising your First Amendment rights does not give them the right to deprive you of an opportunity you would otherwise have” and that the decision was “clearly a violation of First Amendment rights.” What followed was a late-night Twitter debate by many prominent college basketball journalists which was joined this morning by a variety of sites with a vast majority of the non-Kentucky sites supporting the newspaper.
At the heart of The Kernel‘s argument is that the violation was a part of an unwritten rule that they claimed Peevy had not informed them of after the initial inquiry (the original text in the column is different than what appears now as the paper has edited the column, even though they make no mention of the changes online). However, Peevy later sent out a tweet in response to questioning online that clearly outlines the school’s policy (bottom left of the page):
All interviews with University of Kentucky basketball players or staff members must be arranged through the Media Relations office. Media should never contact a player or coach directly.
Later in the editorial the paper’s Editor-in-Chief makes the case that Smith did not violate this rule because the players had not been verified members of the basketball team. While this might be true at the moment that Smith called these two “students” (not quite “student-athletes” yet), once they confirmed they were on the team (making them “student-athletes”) his request for an interview violated the school’s policy. Is this being really nit-picky? Maybe, and some other individuals might have given a student journalist some slack and perhaps let him or her off with just a stern discussion, but in the end that decision is up to the school. In this case, Peevy opted to revoke a credential for a media session (not a game or the entire season) as “punishment” for violating the school’s policy. We are not going to chastise Smith for violating the policy because we think it is a fairly small mistake for a young student journalist to make, and is far from the worst thing we have heard of a journalist doing recently (like making up false accusations), but it is clear that he violated a rule and the people granting him the privilege of covering the event decided that it was enough to rescind their previous invitation. Reasonable minds may disagree whether the level of the offense merited such a severe penalty, but most would agree that a policy was violated and the person granting has the right to revoke a credential when he or she sees fit.
This brings us to the larger issue — the First Amendment. Numerous publications have claimed that Peevy violated Smith and The Kernel‘s First Amendment rights by revoking a media credential to a series of interviews with Kentucky basketball players and back it up citing Jon Fleischaker’s comments (his resume here). As hesitant as we are to disagree with someone who graduated magna cum laude from Penn’s law school (hey, he was wasn’t summa cum laude) and is referred to as a “First Amendment lawyer,” we are going to have go against Fleischaker and the apparent majority opinion on this one. Despite what some members of Big Blue Nation may think, covering Kentucky basketball is not part of The Bill of Rights (assuming Nicolas Cage isn’t making another awful movie right now), and receiving a media credential to cover a game or event is a privilege, not a right, provided by the Founding Fathers or anyone else. This doesn’t apply just to sports but to all forms of media. The White House has the discretion to revoke a media credential just like a high school can (or in this case Kentucky basketball). We aren’t the only ones who feel this way, as the Tennessee Attorney General wrote an advisory opinion last year in a situation at the University of Tennessee over media credentialing and use of material obtained at those events by credentialed individuals.
While we understand we are going to pilloried by the mainstream media, which has largely fallen in line behind Smith and The Kernel billing this as the little student-run newspaper versus the monolithic basketball powerhouse, our perspective is more akin to one of “we’ve been there.” As many of you are aware, over the past three years we have been issued credentials at nearly 100 schools around the nation and have had to deal with a variety of individuals during that time without the benefit of having a name of the university behind us or 100+ years of written legacy like The Kernel enjoys. Sometimes the decisions on whether or not to give or to pull our credentials (like for a big-name journalist who doesn’t even follow basketball but wants to have free courtside seats and a free meal to the hottest game in town) have seemed capricious at best. Despite this reality, we have acquiesced, realizing that these credentials are a privilege and not something we inherently deserve just because we write about college basketball 12 months a year. In the end, this isn’t a “violation of First Amendment rights” or Kentucky’s basketball program “violating civil rights,” but merely a case of a student journalist breaking a written school policy and receiving what can best be described as a one-time slap on the wrist. To make any more of it is simply grandstanding.