When is a public official speaking in public at a public university not public?  

The assignment seemed simple enough.

Rob Portman
Rob Portman

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) was speaking at the Moritz College of Law on Ohio State’s campus, as part of the new “Congressional Conversations” series with the John Glenn College of Public Affairs.

The Lantern, Ohio State’s student newspaper, sent a reporter to cover his remarks since he is a) a U.S. senator b) speaking as part of a public new forum c) running for re-election.

Boy, was reporter Leah McClure surprised when she was asked to leave.

“I asked (chief communications officer for the Moritz College of Law Barbara Peck) if I would be allowed to cover the event for The Lantern, and she said that she was pretty sure that would be fine but that she would have to double-check with Rob Portman’s team,” McClure recalled for The Lantern. “About 15 minutes later, another person who works for Moritz College of Law came in and asked me to leave.”

Peck later told The Lantern the event actually was not open to the media, although it was to the public (with RSVP), and the Portman campaign did not want media there.

That Portman was on campus for the first of two Congressional Conversations events makes the action ironic. It was almost farcical that the series was focusing on improving “legislative process and American governance, public policy, and public service,” according to the OSU Democracy Studies website.

Kicking out the press always goes a long way toward improving understanding and engagement in government.

The First Amendment implications of a government official  denying public recording of a public event is clear enough, but the fact this occurred amid the learning laboratory that is Ohio State makes it all the more incomprehensible.

It was truthfully not the best week for the First Amendment in Buckeye land.

McClure’s incident came just hours after university officials, faced with a student sit-in at Ohio State President Michael Drake’s office over complaints including university privatization, took the only logical step in supporting open thought and dialogue: They threatened students with arrest and then expulsion if they did not vacate by 5 a.m.

Now, I teach Media Law, so I know the First Amendment starts with “Congress shall make no law…” and Ohio is a long way from the halls of Congress (for which I am grateful everyday after my experience in politics).

But the spirit of the words that follow the first item in our Bill of Rights permeates the fabric of this country and makes it standout among countless other republics, especially in our modern climate (I’m looking at you, Donald Trump).

Let’s review what we must not abridge here in the great U.S. of A:

  1. Establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
  2. Freedom of speech…
  3. Or of the press;
  4. The right of the people peaceably to assemble, and;
  5. To petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Assembly and petition have brought change to this nation since its inception 200-plus years ago. Considering how apathetic many people fear college students to be, should we not nurture discourse that will shape future leaders, instead of squelching it?

The media is still the Fourth Estate (or Fifth, depending on your journalistic view), and that role is intended to check and balance government, even when it winds it way to a university forum.

And that doesn’t mean stifling the media when it seems inconvenient, but embracing it for personal gain.

Did I mention Portman’s campaign tweeted from the Ohio State event?

Screenshot 2016-04-11 22.20.15

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