Mar 20, 2024 - News

Cobb schools criticized for cutting off media outlet

Illustration of a censored band over a microphone at a podium.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

An online media outlet is in a yearslong battle for information with the Cobb County School District after the system cut off communication with the news website.

Why it matters: Transparency and press freedom advocates say it's antithetical to the First Amendment for governments to pick and choose which media outlets they give access to — even if an outlet's editor posts inflammatory comments on social media.

What they're saying: Larry Johnson, editor-in-chief of the online startup Cobb County Courier, tells Axios that since 2021, the district has declined to respond to emailed questions from him and his freelancers.

  • The district's communications officials have replied to the Courier by saying they won't respond due to "ongoing concerns with accuracy in reporting," according to screenshots posted on X by Courier freelancer Rebecca Gaunt.

Between the lines: Johnson tells Axios that he began getting that response after he ran a story that countered a district press release proclaiming its SAT scores were the highest in the state among large school systems.

  • "They claimed that it was inaccurate reporting, but I was never asked for a correction," Johnson said. "It was never pointed out to me what they thought was incorrect in the coverage."

The other side: A Cobb school district spokesperson shared with Axios posts written on X in May 2022 and August 2023 where Johnson sardonically mentions the term "grand dragon" in his criticism of Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and district policies.

  • People who use that kind of terminology, as well as calling the superintendent and board members "racists" and "right-wing wackaloons," are not part of an "unbiased, honest media; they are bloggers," the district said.
  • "We are happy to work with any member of the public, including bloggers, who help share stories of 107k children and 20k educators — free of political activism."
  • Johnson stands by his comments, adding they parodied the district thanking Libs of TikTok for alerting them to books they subsequently removed from their library shelves.

Richard Griffiths, a media ethicist and board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, tells Axios that not only is it wrong for any governmental entity to shut out media organizations that don't agree with them, but it also shows "insecurity and pettiness."

  • "It is often done by those who don't understand the larger picture, which is the public has a right to know what's going on in government and that includes through their representatives in the media."

Context: This isn't the first time the Cobb school district has been in the spotlight for how it responds to criticism.

  • The parent-led Cobb Community Care Coalition released emails and messages obtained through an open records request they say show district officials were working behind the scenes to give pro-Ragsdale speakers the first opportunity to sign up to speak at a September 2023 board meeting.
  • The district's decision to change the signup location led to pushing and shoving among residents, leaving some injured and others frustrated.

The bottom line: Joy Ramsingh, an attorney and fellow board member of the Foundation, tells Axios that there's a "tremendous lack of education" among some public officials about how transparency and the First Amendment work.

  • "If you're not comfortable with people hating you and disagreeing with you, you don't need to be in that role," she said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the attribution to Larry Johnson (not Felton) standing by his comments about the Cobb County School District.

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