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Friday, February 15, 2008

Choate, Rove stifled free speech when they sifted out press coverage


The following is by Register columnist Randall Beach

MEMO TO EDUCATORS: If you’re going to invite Karl Rove to your campus, you might want to think first about how your students, your students’ parents and representatives of newspapers in your area might react.
Then you might want to come up with an advance game plan for how to handle it all.
Rove, former deputy chief of staff and senior adviser for President George W. Bush, remains a divisive figure. When Choate Rosemary Hall Headmaster Edward Shanahan decided to invite Rove to the Wallingford preparatory school to deliver the graduation address, he should have known what would happen.
Well, it was a brouhaha. Some Choate students vowed to walk out of the ceremony; others planned to wave protest signs or turn their chairs around. The student newspaper urged school officials to reconsider, saying it would be preferable to bring Rove to campus at another date when students could have a chance to exchange views with him.
After meeting with students and finding out that, gee whiz, a majority of them opposed having Rove as graduation speaker either because they didn’t like his political policies (such as advising Bush to invade Iraq) or were worried he would be a major distraction on the students’ special day, Shanahan relented.
Rove instead was invited to speak this past Monday and then take questions.
That made good sense. Although I strongly disagree with his views, I also strongly believe Rove had a right to be heard. The students, in turn, had a right to challenge him in a relaxed forum.
But what about the media? I, for one, was hoping to cover the event as a columnist, alongside our North Bureau Chief Luther Turmelle.
But then last week came the word from Mary Verselli, the school’s director of communications: No media allowed.
School officials said they were worried that reporters would be distracting, and that students needed to be “protected” from such an invasion.
Of course, there were simple ways to provide for limited media coverage and still “protect” the students. When seeking access to a private setting, most reporters will abide by restrictions such as agreeing to silently observe and not ask questions. I did this when former Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to younger students in Greenwich three years ago.
But Choate Rosemary Hall officials kept saying: no dice, no media.
And so I didn’t go to Wallingford Monday. I wasn’t going to freeze my hindquarters off while waiting around outside police barricades, trying to catch a glimpse of Rove.
But Turmelle did go, because Rove coming to Wallingford was still a story. We also assigned a staff photographer to the event. The Record-Journal, which covers Meriden and Wallingford, sent a reporter, too, as did the Associated Press and the Hartford Courant.
Imagine the other reporters’ surprise when one of them, the scribe from the Courant, was escorted inside, as well as a Courant photographer. All the other Connecticut journalists were left out.
The “no media” rule also did not apply to Fox News, whose crew was given full access to Rove all day at the school. Rove, of course, has close ties to that conservative TV network and he wanted them there.
Verselli told Turmelle the decision to let the Courant inside was made at the last minute with Rove’s approval. Verselli said the Courant’s reporter was already working on another story “that we liked.”
When I spoke with Verselli over the phone Wednesday, she said, “We very graciously allowed one print reporter to cover it. Originally, the Rove contract had said ‘no media’ but we asked him, ‘How about allowing one person in?’ He agreed and we decided the Courant was the best representative for a statewide newspaper.”
When I pointed out that giving the slot to the AP reporter would have made more sense because the story could have been more widely distributed and picked up by virtually all newspapers, she said, “I have no problem with the way we did it.”
And when I said the school officials’ decision looked like favoritism, she replied, “I don’t care.”
Verselli didn’t get why I was even calling her, why I was making such a big deal about all this.
There’s nothing riding on it but the First Amendment, free speech, a free press, the public’s right to know and what students learn from their educators as they deal with such issues.
Randall Beach can be reached at rbeach@nhregister.com or 789-5766.

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