Journalistic censorship not welcome here

Lee Pulaski
City Editor

There are two major types of people you deal with as a journalist — those that speak their minds to their hearts’ content in the hopes of constantly being in the spotlight, and those that speak their minds to their hearts’ content who then try to push journalists covering the event to cut their comments out of the story.

Those of you in the first category, take a deep breath, because I’m not going to offer any commentary on you today.

Those of you in the second category, have a seat, because I have something to say about your attempts at journalistic censorship, and how it flies in the face of the First Amendment — specifically freedom of the press.

The funny thing about the First Amendment is that it gives folks the freedom to speak their minds, but it also gives the press the freedom to chronicle what people say in public without censorship. Twice in less than a week, I’ve had people attempt to “tell” me what to write and what not to write, but it’s been a constant battle in the 13 years I’ve been here in northeast Wisconsin.

The latest censorship attempt came June 19 when I attended a meeting for the Shawano County Democratic Party, which was described in the press release as something where the public was invited. Besides the transgender speaker advertised, the Democrats heard from one of the candidates for district attorney. All this I freely documented.

Then the party chairwoman stood up and talked about how important it was for Democrats to vote in the Aug. 13 primary and vote on the Republican ballot. However, she preceded it with “This is off the record.” No asking, no tearful pleas, just the arrogance that she thinks she can tell journalists what is acceptable to write.

As you can see by what I just wrote, I didn’t violate my ethics and didn’t obey her commands like a good dog.

Before that, I attended the June 15 public hearing — I repeat, public hearing — on the plans to put an adolescent recovery center in the Town of Bartelme on Stockbridge-Munsee land. Many people spoke on the issue, but only one tried to convince me not to include her comments in the story by coming up to my table and saying it.

It didn’t stop there, though.

Following the meeting, I went to visit my mother and enjoy what was remaining of my weekend. While enjoying lunch with her, I got several messages on my personal Facebook page making the same demands, and when I didn’t act rude toward my mother and answer right away, she convinced someone with the Shawano Police Department to text me and suggest I should probably be checking my social media. That really took the cake — and some nerve.

What people don’t realize is public meetings, hearings and forums are fair game for those who cover the news. Every word, every action, even every nasty expression or eye twitch are on the table for journalists, and bureaucrats and loudmouths don’t get to tell, coerce or bully me regarding what goes into what I write. Freedom of speech does not get priority over freedom of the press — that’s why they’re both in the First Amendment.

Freedom of the press is under attack worldwide, and sadly, those attacks happen in Shawano County, too. Besides the two aforementioned incidents, here are some other examples of when folks tried to get me to ignore my impartiality:

• Following an article I wrote about something at one of the Shawano School District’s committees, which are public meetings under the open meeting law, I got an administrative email that said, among other things: “I ask that if you are attending committee meetings you, please refrain from writing about topics discussed in committee until they are presented to the entire board.” Nope. Public meeting equals fair game, even if it’s a committee.

• About a year ago, I was attending a village board meeting, and the village clerk was about to say something about somebody in the village who was not at the meeting and thus not able to provide an opposing viewpoint, but before she said it, she pointed at me and said “This is off the record,” at which point I spoke up and said that this was a public meeting. The funny thing about smalltown bureaucrats is they think they’re rulers of their roosts. They’re not.

• In 2013, at another Shawano school committee meeting, the discussion of the sale of the school bus company was on the agenda. This time, it wasn’t a public official trying to tell me I couldn’t report on what was happening at a public meeting. It was an arrogant man selling the company but still trying to get a five-year contract from the district.

I could go on with examples, but I’ve made my point. I inform the public about what goes on in the community, and I’m not going to dirty my ethical responsibility to do so just because you say something stupid, petty or illegal in a public situation. Freedom of the press is in the First Amendment, alongside freedom of speech. One doesn’t supersede the other, so if you don’t want any inflammatory or idiotic comments to end up in news reports, keep your mouth shut.

Lee Pulaski is the city editor for NEW Media. Readers can contact him at