Following a dispute Tuesday evening between members of the Student Alliance for National Security and the Indiana Daily Student regarding a request for a public speech by former government official Meghan O'Sullivan to be off-the-record, First Amendment experts and lawyers nationwide called O'Sullivan's request questionable. But the event's organizers said this was an issue of professionalism, not media rights.
In addition, the IDS found similar procedures to be commonplace at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, where O'Sullivan serves as a senior fellow.
O'Sullivan, President Bush's former deputy national security advisor, had been contracted by the student organization to speak Tuesday at the Indiana Memorial Union. O'Sullivan had planned to lead a discussion with students and members of the public about recent gains made in the Iraq war. However, both O'Sullivan and event organizers said the event had to be off-the-record for members of the press.
After objections by both IDS reporters and editors, and the assertion that O'Sullivan had become ill, organizers canceled the event. But fallout Wednesday largely yielded more questions than answers - namely those regarding the press' access to reporting public events.
"This is a public university, public dollars. You cannot be bound by the agreement that those organizations made," said Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a facility devoted to journalism and its ethics. "(Journalists) can attend that event. And you can write about that event ethically and responsibly."
Although the IDS originally challenged the request on the basis of Indiana's Open Door Law, editors at the newspaper realized later that evening this particular situation was not covered by the law because it was not a meeting; it was a public event. IDS Editor-in-Chief Carrie Ritchie said the press had the right to quote O'Sullivan's lecture.
"I see it as common sense because we are going there and covering the event that had been advertised as free and open to the public," Ritchie said. "Anyone in the city, the state, this country or the world could have attended."
It is not uncommon for institutions to experience controversy about speakers, Clark said, but that controversy hardly ever stems from a request by organizers to keep a speaker's comments private.
First Amendment experts and lawyers also couldn't think of a previous case similar to Tuesday night's.
In large part, they agreed that the dispute stemmed from a general misunderstanding of the term "off-the-record." The decision to go off-the-record is an agreement journalists can choose to make with sources, Clark said. It is not something reporters are required to do in public gatherings, and the request often includes gray areas, experts said. Additionally, they all agreed O'Sullivan had no legal authority to require all comments be off-the-record, particularly when University dollars funded the speech.
"That is just plain stupid," said Lucy Dalglish, attorney and executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "If you want to have a private event, say it is by invitation only."
Event organizers said this type of request is typical and said they were disappointed in what they called the press' lack of professionalism. It was an arrangement that Miles Taylor, director for the Student Alliance for National Security, said he had expected the IDS to uphold. He was also upset that IDS staff members waited until five minutes before the event began to say they wouldn't accept O'Sullivan's request.
"Frankly, it was shocking to me," Taylor said. He said major universities looking to lure high-profile speakers to campus often graned recent government employees off-the-record status. In the end, the situation for Taylor was "money lost, time wasted and IU embarrassed."
At Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs - the sponsor of O'Sullivan's fellowship - many lectures and workshops also ask for off-the-record status. A spokesman for the school said there was no umbrella policy requiring these events be held off-the-record. Rather, that decision was left up to individual presenters.
"I think people really appreciate and value the ability to engage in true public discourse," said Sasha Talcott, director of communications for the center. Without the press taking notes during an event, people might be able to more fully express their viewpoints, she said.
Malcom A. Glenn, president of Harvard's student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, said he was not aware these types of presentations went on at the university, but said reporters at his newspaper would not concede to requests for off-the-record presentations.
At IU, several officials were surprised by organizers' requests.
Larry MacIntyre, IU's assistant vice president for University Communications, said he'd never heard of something like this happening at a college campus.
In addition, University Chancellor Ken Gros Louis said denying press access to a public event "goes against the grain of what a university is." He also said that, in his 43-year tenure at IU, he cannot remember a situation like this occurring.
But for Taylor, the dispute was not a question of press freedoms. Rather, it was a desire that reporters respect the request from a high-profile speaker.
"This isn't an issue of the rights of the press," he said. "This is an issue of the courtesy of the press' professionalism."
© 2008 Indiana Daily Student via U-WIRE