BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we heard how the situation is playing out in Akron. Is it happening in other places?
BRIAN NICKERSON: Well it seems to be a pattern growing in municipal governments, particularly in a post 9/11 era, and what you've seen as a result is I think a channeling and additional filtering of information that gets released to the community in various ways, through either a public information office or now through other individuals that try to restrict the flow of information out to the public. A lot of municipal governments have moved towards professionalizing communications officers and information officers, and that's been around for the last 20, 30 years or so, providing information to the general public. For instance, you know, when does the sanitation pick up? What are school days? That type of general information. But now what we're seeing now is a certain line being crossed where now public information officers are being used to be the official spokespersons for elected bodies, and the potential issue here is not only a legal one with respect to perhaps an access or limitation to freedom of speech but also the issue now of restricting media access to elected officials.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Voters put those people in office, so the idea is that they should be accountable, and they can't do that if they aren't allowed to speak for themselves.
BRIAN NICKERSON: Absolutely. And, and any time when you have a free speech issue such as this, there's always a balancing question that has to be asked --what's the legitimate interest of government in restricting the access to information or filtering the information versus the right of the public to know what's going on. You can see arguments on both sides.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm not sure I see the argument for preventing a reporter from writing something about a driveby shooting.
BRIAN NICKERSON:Well I think what you find municipal governments doing, either rightly or wrongly now, is using the notion of public security. So, for instance, a lot of times they will argue that it's a matter of, you know, they don't want to raise mass hysteria and create instability or chaos, which would threaten security. A lot of times you find governments utilizing the notion of protection of confidentiality and right to privacy as another reason to further restrict access to information, and it's also fortified at the federal level by Ashcroft's statement that he's willing to back up any federal bureaucracy or administrative agency who wants to restrict access to information based up on privacy or confidentiality concerns.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: To what extent do you think this message was heard and acted on at the local level?
BRIAN NICKERSON:Local officials will always respond to what's going on nationally, particularly in the area of security, and even though Ashcroft can't mandate to a local government what they can and can't do in terms of information, the tone that's set I think certainly influences many local government officials, particularly in emergency and police services towards restricting access to information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you had conversations with specific municipalities over this issue of information and what have you advised them to do?
BRIAN NICKERSON:I have had conversations. They feel a lot of times if there are discordant voices coming out of government, that that does nothing but confuse the public. I advise them to be very cautious. You know, it's a basically good intention, but I think they don't see the whole picture from both a legal standpoint of some of the challenges they may face as well as just from a standpoint of what local governments are supposed to do in allowing democracy to thrive. People feel connected to local government, and that's been a historical tradition throughout the origins of the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You've said that one reason why people put these spokesmen in place is to keep the message from local government consistent, but it's inside the inconsistencies that you can see where perhaps the truth is being shaded. I know this is a, a tedious preoccupation of journalists, but [LAUGHTER] Ben Bradlee once said "Never forget governments lie."
BRIAN NICKERSON: Or-- they have self interest. But if you restrict information, and your goal is to provide a unified voice from an elected council, the problem with that is that under democracy, they're not supposed to be unified. There are supposed to be discordant voices. There are supposed to be a variety of opinions that come to the table, and consensus building. And that needs to be explained and expressed to the public, because you have to show that the process is intact and, and taking place. So the idea of a unified voice, I think, this is where the, the rationale behind the policy really falls short and begins to potentially threaten what we know to be good democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Brian Nickerson, thank you very much.
BRIAN NICKERSON: You're quite welcome. It's my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brian Nickerson is the director of the Michaelian Institute for Public Policy and Management at Pace University.