Journalism Advocacy Groups warn Pittsburgh Public Schools that ‘invitation-only’ press briefings raises ‘significant constitutional concerns’

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet speaks at a March 26 press briefing. (Photo by Mary Niederberger)

By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer

As an education reporter in Pittsburgh who has covered the Pittsburgh Public Schools on and off for a number of years and has covered almost every aspect of education in this past year, I was surprised recently when noticed that weekly “media briefings” were being held by district officials, most notably Superintendent Anthony Hamlet, and I was not included in them.

At first, I took it personally.  

Now, after seeing today’s letter from the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to PPS spokeswoman Ebony Pugh, a copy of which is published below, I find that it wasn’t just me. The district was also excluding other media organizations as well from its weekly briefings.

The letter, obtained by the Pittsburgh Current, as you will see, makes it clear to Pugh that holding invitation-only media briefings “would raise significant constitutional concerns.”

When I first questioned Pugh several weeks ago as to why I was not included in a Friday afternoon briefing, I was told that I hadn’t asked the right questions. The first weekly briefing I noticed was about teacher vaccinations and I had not inquired about that, she said. 

I didn’t like that explanation, but accepted it. But then the next week there was another briefing in which I was not included. So I texted with Pugh and asked to be put on the list for any future media briefings. She texted back that “prior to moving forward, you and I need to talk.”

She set up a meeting for more than a week away on a Tuesday morning.

But before that meeting, there was yet another media briefing at which news of back-to-school information and commencement information was shared.  Again, only with certain media organizations.

Again, I reached out to Pugh, this time with outrage that there clearly was an edited media list that was getting information that should be shared with ALL media. I reminded her that the district was a public entity, supported by public funds and that it was not appropriate for it to pick and choose which media outlets got to come to briefings.

I received a text in reply from Pugh. It read: “I’d like to issue you an invitation, however, we need to talk first, before I open the briefings up to the Pittsburgh Current.”

I suggested we talk immediately rather than wait until Tuesday.

Pugh was considerate enough to call me within a few minutes. She proceeded to tell me that she had a problem with the “professionalism” of the Pittsburgh Current in regards to a story that was published about Pittsburgh parents being angry with Hamlet over photos on social media that showed the superintendent socializing in Florida without a mask.

She accused the Current of posting the story to social media before reaching out to her for comment.  But when she provided a copy of the posting she was referring to, it was a story that included her comments. 

She also criticized the Current for covering a livestream the district held in January in which high school students spoke about the difficulties of learning online. The livestream was part of a series of virtual listening sessions the superintendent has touted at earlier public meetings and an announcement had been sent out about it by the A+ Schools advocacy group. 

Called “Virtual Learning and Technology Support, ” the livestream ran on the district’s public channel on Jan. 12.  Anyone was free to tune in. Perhaps it was a district mistake to publicly promote and stream this session. It was not a mistake for me to cover it. 

Pugh said it was unprofessional of me to cover that without first notifying her. 

For these reasons, I was being excluded from the weekly media briefings.

It marked the first time in nearly 40 years of journalism that I was excluded from media briefings for simply doing my job. 

After our discussion, in which I argued strenuously that excluding me and this outlet based on my coverage was inappropriate, I was included on the invitation list for the most recent briefing on Friday March 26. 

You can read below what the PNA and RCFP have to say about what happened to me and other reporters in Pittsburgh. Pugh could not be reached for comment at the time of publishing. We will update if any comments are received. 

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