By Jim Hayes
This week’s Settler has three stories dealing with American’s right to free speech, and just as we have that right, the corollary is also true, private citizens have the right to be silent.
However, public officials on the government’s payroll have a responsibility to make themselves available not only to the media, but also to private citizens.
Unfortunately, Volunteer State Community College Police Chief Angela Lawson does not appear to understand that responsibility.
On seven occasions over the past year, The Settler has attempted to communicate with Lawson. Last year, when the Annual Security Report (ASR) was released, an attempt to contact her was made. The Settler received no response from Lawson.
The Settler was similarly ignored when Lawson’s office was contacted after someone dropped some dynamite off at a weekend event.
(In the interests of full disclosure, the author of this article was the person who made both the above attempts and the three most recent attempts to contact Lawson.)
The Settler scheduled two meetings with her last year. Not only did she not appear at either one, but we received no notice as to why she was a no-show.
Judging by Vol State’s low crime rate, it would not seem that law enforcement duties caused her to fail to appear.
Finally, this year, we were able to talk with her about parking tickets for a story. However, attempts to reach Lawson regarding an attempted abduction at the Cookeville campus and the latest ASR have gone unanswered.
Queries about why the police chief is unavailable to us have netted The Settler only vague intimations that, at some point, Lawson had an issue with the paper.
However, three things must be made clear about Vol State’s student newspaper: it is a student paper, and thus, since the students are learning the nuances of journalism, we occasionally make mistakes (and if those mistakes are pointed out, we correct them).
Secondly, Vol State is a community college with students generally on campus for only one or two years. So, holding a grudge over a lengthy period of time seems kind of pointless.
Finally, although we are a student newspaper, we are still an accredited member of the Tennessee Press Association and therefore entitled to the same courtesies that would be extended to The Tennessean.
Those items aside, the Vol State Chief of Police is still a public employee. She is the face of the college’s law enforcement and safety efforts and as such must make herself available when the media, be it a student newspaper, the student radio station, a community newspaper, or a larger media outlet like The Tennessean or a television station, come calling.
Yes, every private citizen has the right to both free speech and silence, however every public official must remember that they have a responsibility to communicate with the people they serve and with the media which serves as a conduit to those same people.
It is well past time that The Settler had access to the police chief of the campuses it serves.