Kentucky Restricts Student Newspaper Access to Basketball Team in Response to Report About Walk-Ons

The fall semester is barely a blip on the academic radar and already the student press censorship has begun.  The location: Lexington, Ky.  The situation: University of Kentucky athletics officials, angry over a story published in The Kentucky Kernel, have barred the campus newspaper from one-on-one interviews today with the school’s basketball team.

According to a Lexington Herald-Leader report, the paper apparently violated an unofficial UK rule limiting journalists from speaking to student athletes without the coordination of university media relations.  The rule is in place to ensure athletes are not “bombarded with interview requests constantly.”

Kernel sports writer Aaron Smith is the alleged rule-breaker– singled out for his reporting on a seemingly innocuous story [screenshot below].  As the Kernel explained, Smith “reported Monday morning that two walk-ons had been added to the basketball team— information that Smith had uncovered after looking up the two players’ cellphone numbers in the directory on UK’s website and calling them. The names of the players . . . were first released on Twitter Sunday night by UK freshman basketball player Anthony Davis and also reported on Kentucky Sports Radio just after 9 a.m. Monday.”

A screenshot of Smith's story that is causing the media relations ruckus.

So the newsworthy info was public, as was the contact info Smith used to track down the players.  But for not following the preferred method of communication, the school is striking back.  The Kernel is barred from an event today for “select media” highlighted by brief private interviews with the basketball players.  A UK athletics media relations official calls it “a reward to, basically, a preferred group of people to give them special access.”  In turn, he calls canceling the Kernel‘s access a “punishment.”

My take: A tough call, but the university made the wrong one.  While the rule the Kernel “broke” isn’t official (since of course it reeks of First Amendment violations), it does make at least a smidgen of sense.  Obviously student athletes must have protection from prying outside media.  Yet, at the same time, shouldn’t campus media be treated a bit differently than these outsiders?  After all, they are bound to have more access given their staff’s student status.

Also, since it’s unofficial, shouldn’t discretion be involved in both applying the rule and “punishing” its breakers?  In this case, in terms of discretion, the media relations team has embarrassingly overreacted.  It’s a simple six-inch (if that) confirmation story.  It involved a report already leaking out.  And it featured nothing more than a pair of phone calls.  Heck, the players aren’t even on scholarship.

Have a private talk with the Kernel editors.  Publicly reiterate the reasons for the unofficial media limitation on player access.  Don’t turn to censorship so quickly.  The Kernel ban is apparently only in place for this lone event– meaning the university’s response is nothing more than a symbolic temper-tantrum that turns a so-what story about walk-ons into a national media blitzkrieg with the school as the villain.

Kentucky First Amendment lawyer says it’s “clearly a violation of First Amendment rights for the university to condition access on gathering or publishing information the way the university wants you to do it.”

This is the second censorship issue to arise in the last year between the Kernel and UK Athletics.  Click on the screenshot below to read about the other.

3 Responses to “Kentucky Restricts Student Newspaper Access to Basketball Team in Response to Report About Walk-Ons”
  1. senatorallen says:

    I don’t know. Since when are we in the business of siding with “unwritten” policy? Division I schools continue to elevate the student-athlete above the mere mortal level, and while yes, the rule does make sense on athletics’ end, it goes against what we stand for, and we’ve long fought against rules that discriminate — it’s what we do. The continued roadblocks erected by athletics, and the willingness of advisers and professional media to meekly stand by as they build their empires, set a bad example to student journalists. If we were told that we couldn’t talk directly to officers on the scene of a crime (so they weren’t “bombarded” by interviews) and had to go through the chief or media relations officer, we’d freak out. If athletics doesn’t want the media to interview students, tell the students to just say “no.” If the students don’t want to be interviewed, say no, walk away, don’t answer the phone call or, better yet, don’t publish your information on a public site (a Buckley flag gets all your information removed, presto).
    Just my two cents from Oklahoma State, the No. 9 preseason rated football team in the country, where the ripple effect is that we can’t talk to any freshman or transfer student, in any sport, period. “The might say something dumb.” Exactly.

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