U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Kentucky State Police spokesperson threatens media with denial of access

Incident Details

Date of Incident
March 2, 2018
Harlan, Kentucky

Denial of Access

Government agency or public official involved
March 2, 2018

On March 2, 2018, a Kentucky State Police Public Affairs Officer ordered radio station WRIL 106.3 FM and the Mountain Advocate newspaper to withhold publishing or airing any information on ongoing Kentucky State Police investigations until after the Kentucky State Police Public Affairs Office has issued an official statement.

KSP Trooper Shane Jacobs, who serves as public affairs officer for KSP Post 10, emailed the news organizations and threatened to cut off their press access if they did not comply.

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. No more posting inaccurate information from Sheriff’s or anyone else. I don’t care to confirm something and then get a release out later.

Authority of my supervisors, if this continues, you will be taken off our media distribution list. Thanks Shane.

KSP email to Mountain Advocate and WRIL 106.3 FM

Representatives of both media organizations criticized the order. Editor Charles Myrick was both surprised and defiant.

“This demand has totally blindsided us," Mountain Advocate editor Charles Myrick told the paper. "However, we will continue to do our job and keep the public informed, regardless of the agency or agencies involved."

"The Kentucky State Police have a job to do and an obligation to the communities they cover and so do we," Brian O'Brien of WRIL 106.3 FM told local broadcaster LEX 18. "I believe that we both do our jobs to the best of our ability and are susceptible to open criticism from the public.   At times that is also true from those we work with. I would hope that an open line of communication can continue with Kentucky State Police as well as any other law enforcement entity."

On March 6, Kentucky Press Association executive director David Thompson sent a letter to the Kentucky State Police criticizing the order. The letter was addressed to both KSP commissioner Richard Sanders and to KSP lieutenant Michael Webb, who is in charge of the KSP Public Affairs Office.

“It is not acceptable that anyone, a member of the public, a public agency, and including the Kentucky State Police, to tell the media it is not to publish (or perhaps, air) any information until or after a release is sent from KSP," Thompson wrote in the letter. "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 displease[d] the state police.”

“A state police officer simply has no authority to order the news media not to publish," he wrote. "To do so raises serious First Amendment and other legal issues and the officer’s threat is not acceptable.”

On March 8, KSP captain Ryan Catron — the commander of KSP Post 10 and Jacobs' superior officer — spoke to the Lexington Herald Leader about the controversial order.

“We want to work with all media outlets. … We’re not trying to withhold any information from them," he told the Lexington Herald Leader. "We’re asking that they wait until they get our press releases before they put anything out.”

When asked whether news organizations that disobeyed the order would be removed from KSP media distribution lists, Catron declined to comment, stating that he refused to “speculate on what would happen in the future.”  

On March 12, Dan Shelley — the executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association (which is a partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker) — sent a letter to KSP commissioner Sanders, asking him to overturn the order.

I respectfully submit, Commissioner Sanders, that such an order is, on its face, in direct contravention of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. …

I, on behalf of the broadcast and digital journalists RTDNA represents, insist that you rescind this new policy forthwith. Any time the efforts of journalists are restricted it is not those journalists who are the victims. Rather, it is the public – in this case the citizens of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, whom you are sworn to protect and serve – that becomes the victim because it is being denied information to which it is constitutionally entitled.

RTDNA letter to KSP

The next day, KSP Sergeant Josh Lawson told the Freedom of the Press Foundation that the controversy over the order had been resolved. Lawson, the public affairs officer for KSP Post 5, said that he had spoken with the Kentucky Press Association to dispel any confusion over the order.

“I have spoken with Mr. Thompson with the Kentucky Press Association and I encourage you to speak with him as this entire misunderstanding was explained," he said.

In a statement to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Mountain Advocate publisher Jay Nolan said that Michael Webb (the KSP lieutenant in charge of the department's public affairs office) had personally called Mountain Advocate editor Charles Myrick to apologize for the confusion over the order.

Our editor, Charles Myrick, did get a telephone call from the KSP State headquarters. Specifically, the officer in charge of the Public Affairs Officers statewide. He called the Email a “regrettable” choice of words. He suggested that officer Jacobs should have come in person to express his concerns with us, and also explained we would not be removed from any notification list. He indicated that the KSP wanted to continue to maintain positive relations with us and all the media.

Based on the tone and content of his call, we consider this matter closed. The Mountain Advocate will continue to report the news as we have for over 110 years, and welcome the support of the KSP as we seek to keep our community informed.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].