IOWA CITY, Iowa — The department that runs Iowa’s prison system has suspended a guard for giving an interview to his small hometown newspaper for a positive story about his life and work helping inmates.
The guard is fighting the discipline, calling it a violation of his free speech rights. But regardless of whether he’s successful, the case stands out as an example of a heavy-handed approach toward media relations in an era of dwindling local news.
The problems started when the Bloomfield Democrat, a weekly paper in southern Iowa, featured John Cox in a glowing front-page profile in December about how he approaches his job at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility.
Newspaper publisher Karen Spurgeon had been Cox’s music teacher decades ago when he was in school. She bumped into him at an event, and was impressed that he had overcome challenges in his life to become a correctional officer with a passion for kindness and empathy.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a good story.’ He agreed to an interview,” Spurgeon said.
The banner, front-page headline in December declared that Cox “inspires” and “teaches” inmates. “Remember, kindness is the gift that doesn’t cost anything,” Cox was quoted as saying.
Instead of celebrating the type of positive story that agencies rarely receive, prison leaders launched an investigation into Cox, who had not sought approval to speak to the newspaper.
A prison captain twice contacted the publisher to ask questions, including how the interview came about, who witnessed it and what sources she used.
“We just want to make sure that everything was done correctly for this interview and that’s what I’m looking into,” Capt. Mark Boatman told Spurgeon in a January call that she recorded.
He questioned her about facts that were deep in the 2,200-word article: Cox revealed the prison has a population of roughly 1,000 inmates and the most assaults in the state because of its dormitory-style living, yet officers do not carry firearms. All are matters of public record.
Nonetheless, the Iowa Department of Corrections issued a three-day paper suspension, saying Cox violated work rules that require authorization for media interviews and that all press contacts be reported immediately. The action does not affect his pay but could be used to justify more severe discipline in the future.
With the backing of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers union, Cox has appealed the suspension, arguing it is an infringement on free speech.
“He got disciplined for talking to the newspaper. That is just insane,” union president Danny Homan said. “What are we running in the state of Iowa, a dictatorial state where you can’t say anything about the state? I guess that means that I get to be the one who says it. It’s just wrong.”
The appeal notes that Cox, 41, had no prior discipline and argues that a three-day suspension was too harsh.
A state attorney in February upheld the discipline as reasonable, saying the department “has a keen interest in determining when and how” information about its operations is released. Cox’s appeal now goes to the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board.
Homan recalled one other instance in which an employee was disciplined after speaking to media, an Iowa Workforce Development worker who criticized the agency’s director at a 2012 news conference. The union successfully pursued a free speech lawsuit on behalf of that employee, and Homan said the union would be willing to take that step for Cox if necessary.
Still, Homan said that such cases are why he advises public employees they should not speak to the press.
Department of Corrections spokesman Cord Overton said he wouldn’t comment during Cox’s appeal. He said any alleged violations of the department’s staff conduct policies requires “fair and comprehensive investigation, and when necessary, disciplinary action.”
Spurgeon said it never crossed her mind that Cox could be accused of acting inappropriately, and that she became concerned by Boatman’s questions. “I began to think, wow, are we really trying to stifle free speech here?” she said.
Iowa Freedom of Information Council director Randy Evans, who writes a column that’s published in the paper, said the state seems to be over-reacting.
“For the hometown newspaper to write a story about a local boy who made good in the world of government service, it hardly seems like it’s going to bring down state government if he neglects to send an email to his supervisor,” he said.
Ryan J. Foley, The Associated Press