Playing tug of war over a public record

Have you ever played tug of war? You really need to have strong arms to beat the team at the other end of the rope. Well my arms aren’t that strong, but I do remember the time I won a tug of war contest against a school communications director. Instead of a rope, we were tugging on a public record.

It’s probably my most memorable public records fight of all time. Although I can laugh about it now, it really caused me great distress at the time.

Several years ago, I was a covering the education beat at a local newspaper. I had tangled with the school communications director before, but nothing out of the ordinary. On one particular day, the school system decided to hold a joint news conference with other local government officials.  They wouldn’t tell anybody the specifics of what it was about.

Well, I grabbed my pen and paper and ran downtown to get to this mysterious news conference. When I got there, I saw some public officials talking in hushed tones to each other and others just milling around waiting to find out what this was all about. I asked several people what the deal was and they just told me to wait for the news conference.

So, I took a seat and saw the most beautiful sight sitting on a table nearby – a press release! I have never been so happy to see a press release in my life. I went to the table to get it and was quickly accosted by the school communications director who explained that I needed to wait until the end of the news conference to get a press release.

“WHAT?! This is ridiculous,” I thought. I sat there in my seat fuming. They call us to this mysterious news conference,  refuse to tell us what’s going on and then dangle press releases right in front of our faces and tell us not to touch them? I had enough, so I got up, walked over the precious press release table and grabbed one. You would’ve thought I had grabbed a loaded gun the way the communications director jumped on me. She ran over, her face full of surprise that I had disobeyed her, and grabbed on to the press release.

I held on to the paper, too, and so began our tug of war and war of words. After what felt like an eternity, she finally let go and ran to get some help. I started reading through the press release while several school board members yelled at me to stop. Once I was finished, I put it back on the table. I regret doing that. I should have held my ground and held on to the document.

The law states that a document becomes public when it is created, NOT when a news conference is over! If they were smart, they would have hid the press releases from us until the end.

I was especially shocked that day when I realized that I was the only reporter who fought to see the press release before the news conference was over. All the others sat back and watched me fight. I guess that would have been easier, but it wasn’t right. While I hated creating a scene, it was important for the communications director to know that just because she or some other public official writes a press release on their work computer, that doesn’t make it theirs. Those documents belong to the people.

I think I made my point that day, but it wasn’t easy. That little altercation led to nasty e-mails from school leaders to my bosses and a meeting between the two that I was not invited to attend. But in the end, my bosses backed me and secretly praised my courage under PR flak fire.

Since then, I have had many more run ins with public officials who either don’t care about or don’t understand the law. Don’t get me wrong, many officials are friendly, easy to get along with and helpful, but every once in a while you have a tug-of-war story that sticks with you.

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