Agency cannot dictate what is quoted from public talk

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Posted 5/09/17 (Tue)

Whines & Roses
By Cecile Wehrman

I will never agree not to quote someone just because they think normal laws about free speech and the right of the press to report on public business do not apply to them.
Here’s what happened: The Divide County Economic Development Council invited a Customs and Border Patrol employee to be the featured speaker at Crosby’s annual Community Builder Awards.
I had an inkling there could be some trouble while writing a preview article about the speaker -- an innocuous sentence or two about the subjects to be covered would have sufficed -- but I was told the speaker did not want to be named and that any wording had to be cleared with a press office.
That seemed silly since few people sign up to listen to an anonymous person with no idea of the subject matter to be discussed -- so I used her name and said she would be speaking about “CBP operations.”
Tuesday evening last week, I attended the event along with photographer Brad Nygaard.
He took several pictures of the CBP gal, and I took notes as she shared a professional and quite interesting presentation. Sharing as she did some pretty specific figures about manpower at the regional ports, as well as the need for more recruits, it smelled like news to me.
It was a lovely evening, a time to reflect on the hard work and dedication of local honorees like Bev and I.J. Jacobson and the Ekness family, Jeff Greaves, Marlo Stubbs, Kate Sabe and the Vidda Lodge of Sons of Norway.
Switching the event to an evening time frame made it more social and friendly, I thought -- at least until the guest speaker stopped by after everything wrapped up and addressed me with, “You know you can’t quote anything I said.”
“Excuse me?” I said, because I thought I must have misheard her.
“You are with the newspaper, right? I just wanted to make sure you know you can’t quote me,” she repeated, or words to that effect.
The woman then proceeded to explain that she doesn’t have authority to speak for the agency. Dressed as she was in a CBP uniform, I found this curious.
Clearly, her superiors knew she had accepted a public speaking engagement at which she showed an official CBP video, talked about staffing levels in the Portal region and some of the cases they’ve recently handled.
If she wasn’t representing the agency, who was she representing?
I told the agent that, as far as I know, this is still a free country, and I still have a right to report whatever I hear in a public venue. I believe I said it politely, if firmly, because I don’t take kindly to someone trying to take the rights of a free press away.
If I were willing to bow to the wishes of anyone asking not to be quoted -- let alone a government official -- you’d clearly need to question what else I am willing to keep secret from my readers.
We don’t do that. We will never do that, though in this case I did make the decision not to print the specific staffing levels she shared with me and 40 other people in the room, aside from the number of vacancies. 
Though I have every right to quote her, reporting total manpower numbers for the Portal region would seem a potential security risk. 
I don’t even like knowing those numbers, because protecting them forces me to censor information you could have heard yourself had you been in the room.
As badly as I feel about having been asked to shield this speaker’s name (which was printed on about 100 invitations mailed to people across the community) or her information (which was shared freely in a room full of people), I also feel bad for this federal employee. If she has been told by superiors that she’s not representing them and she is to assert she is not quotable, they’re sending her out misinformed about how the First Amendment works.
Prior constraint -- or, in this case, an attempt at constraint after the fact -- is against the law. It’s no different than a policeman putting his hand over the lens of a photographer’s camera to keep him from documenting a scene viewable from a public sidewalk.
By operating as they have here, the government attempts to have it both ways -- some public relations for the agency along with a muzzle on the press to keep the message contained.
That’s not how it works in America, though some employed by our government will try to convince you otherwise.