State police try to control when news is reported. ‘That’s crazy,’ newspaper responds.

A Kentucky State Police spokesman stirred First Amendment controversy last week when he sent an email to the Mountain Advocate newspaper and a Bell County radio station demanding that they wait for KSP press releases before publishing anything about ongoing investigations.

“…From this point forward when KSP is working an investigation, you are to wait until OUR (KSP) press release is sent out before putting anything out on social media, radio, and newspaper,” the KSP spokesman said in an email. “No more posting inaccurate information from Sheriff’s or anyone else.”

The order continues: “Authority of my supervisors, if this continues, you will be taken off our media distribution list.”

Jon Fleischaker, general counsel to the Kentucky Press Association, told the Herald-Leader the order constitutes a violation of the First Amendment, and that state agencies cannot withhold information from certain media outlets “just because they don’t like what the media outlet is writing.”

“If they give something to everyone else and they withhold it from me because they don’t like what I wrote, that’s a First Amendment violation,” said Fleischaker, an attorney who helped craft the state’s open records law. “That is a serious problem.”

KSP Captain Ryan Catron said the email was meant to urge the media outlets to wait for press releases to ensure accuracy, and that the police do not plan to withhold information from either outlet.

“We want to work with all media outlets,” Catron said. “We’re not trying to withhold any information from them. We’re asking that they wait until they get our press releases before they put anything out.”

Both outlets are still on the KSP’s distribution list, Catron told the Herald-Leader Thursday morning.

When asked if KSP would remove either media outlet from the list if the organizations do not wait for press releases, Catron said he did not want to “speculate on what would happen in the future.”

Representatives of the Mountain Advocate and The Big One 106.3FM WRIL criticized the order in a story on the newspaper’s website, saying it would inhibit their ability to report news to the community.

“In my years of working with the Mountain Advocate, I feel our relationship with local law enforcement is stronger than it’s ever been,” said Mountain Advocate Editor Charles Myrick in the newspaper story. “This demand has totally blindsided us. However, we will continue to do our job and keep the public informed, regardless of the agency or agencies involved.”

David Thompson, executive director of the Kentucky Press Association, wrote a letter to KSP Commissioner Richard Sanders saying the order “raises serious First Amendment and other legal issues and the officer’s threat is not acceptable.”

“This is nothing less than an unconstitutional and illegal attempt to restrict access to KSP information because a media outlet has published information that has (displeased) the state police,” Thompson wrote.

Catron said the spokesman sent the email because the organizations were publishing information about KSP investigations gathered from other agencies, rather than waiting for KSP press releases.

Jay Nolan, publisher of the Mountain Advocate, said the order was “at best misguided.”

“For the KSP to tell us we can only report what the KSP says, when they want to say it, and we must ignore any and all other sources, that’s crazy,” Nolan said in the Mountain Advocate. “Any professional journalist would consider a publicly-elected law enforcement professional like our sheriff as a credible source”

Representatives of both news organizations were quoted in the Mountain Advocate saying they were surprised by the order because their relationships with law enforcement had been largely positive.

“We believe our community is best served when an independent, free press works closely with all law enforcement agencies,” Nolan said. “Our mutual goal should be to keep the public fully informed and protected.”

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach him at 859-270-9760, @​HLWright