National journalists' group calls UK action against Kernel 'reprehensible'

Action against Kernel called reprehensible

ssloan@herald-leader.comAugust 31, 2011 

The University of Kentucky athletics department engaged in "reprehensible conduct" in revoking the university student newspaper's access to a basketball media event, a national journalism group said Tuesday.

The letter from Associated Press Managing Editors to UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart was part of a wave of regional and national criticism heaped upon UK in the wake of a disagreement with the Kentucky Kernel over interview practices.

After learning Monday that a Kernel sportswriter had called two students rumored to be walk-ons this fall on the men's basketball team, DeWayne Peevy, UK's associate athletics director for media relations, rescinded an invitation to the reporter for a series of interviews with the team on Tuesday. The reporter broke what Peevy called the university's unwritten policy barring media from interviewing student-athletes without first going through UK's media relations department.

Peevy clarified his statement Tuesday to note that the university indeed has a written policy about interviews that's included in media guides, but the policy does not require media members to sign it.

A portion of the policy reads that "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."

The dispute arose when Kernel sportswriter and managing editor Aaron Smith found the phone numbers in UK's student directory for rumored walk-ons Brian Long and Sam Malone. He asked the two whether they were indeed walk-ons; after they replied yes, he asked whether they would be willing to discuss it further. The two declined.

Peevy said Smith's second question overstepped the boundaries of the policy. He said that led him to rescind Smith's invitation to join selected media members who were allowed to interview each member of UK's team alone on Tuesday for publication in October.

Associated Press Sports Editors, a national organization that represents most of the country's sports sections, wrote in a critical letter to Peevy and the university that "the decision to talk to the media rests with the athlete, and if you don't want your players to talk to the media without the (athletics) office interceding, then you have to get that message to the athletes. And, we believe you did as the athletes in question chose not to talk."

The national and local organizations said UK's move was an affront to the reporter's First Amendment rights.

"This is a level of abuse of free speech not tolerated at universities in other states and is particularly abhorrent at a taxpayer-owned institution," the letter by Hollis Towns, president of APME, read. "We urge you to restore the access of The Kentucky Kernel and Mr. Smith and to ensure that your department henceforth honors its accountability to (the) public."

Taylor Moak, the Kernel's editor-in-chief, said the newspaper does not plan to pursue legal action, as "we're just waiting to see if there's anything more to come of it."

Peevy told the Herald-Leader on Tuesday that he considers the issue resolved.

"Basically they didn't have access to what happened today, but as far as I'm concerned, they'll decide their future and what they decide to cover," he said.

The local Bluegrass Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists also weighed in Tuesday, sending a statement to UK noting its members were "strongly disappointed."

The Kernel's Smith "was carrying out one of the most basic and important duties a journalist is charged with — trying to separate fact from fiction," the statement read.

"UK can't stop a reporter from asking a question and shouldn't cast down an excessive punishment for doing so," the statement continued. "It's an abuse of power and a shameful blow to the First Amendment."

The UK student SPJ chapter plans to send a similar statement Wednesday, organization president Brooke McCloud said.

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