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New policy on North Dakota Board of Directors’ press interactions raises concern among media groups

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The media policy for the Board of University and School Lands was proposed by Governor Doug Burgum earlier this summer in response to statements made by Land Commissioner Jodi Smith to some reporters who he believes could generate misperceptions about the panel’s relationship with North Dakota Oil and gas industry.

Under the conditions introduced under the new policy, the Land Commissioner is expected to inform the members of the Board of Directors of any “significant” interactions with the media. It also states that it cannot make political statements to the press on issues before the board of directors until its members have formulated an official position.

Smith has been tasked with drafting the policy over the past two months in consultation with two other board members. The five-member body, which previously had no media policy, voted unanimously in its meeting on Thursday for the adoption of the new guidelines.

Some leaders and watchdog groups raised concerns earlier this summer that discussions about stricter media policies could discourage communications with the press or restrict public access to important board decisions. The panel received two letters to this effect during a one-month comment period prior to its last meeting.

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Among them was a letter from North Dakota Newspaper Association board chair Amy Dalrymple saying that discussions about the new media policy could have “a chilling effect” on Smith’s interactions with reporters.

Dalrymple, who is also editor-in-chief of the Bismarck Tribune, noted that the Land Board often deals with complicated issues, such as the withdrawals of oil and gas licenses, which were recently the subject of a state lawsuit. She argued that having access to the commissioner can be important for reporters in order to better understand the issues and get them across to readers.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, a member of the board, said during Thursday’s session that the new policy is designed to protect Smith from having to take her independent stand on an issue rather than advocating the unified position of the board.

Requests to speak to the Commissioner for background information on complex issues were fine and within the new guidelines.

“I think that’s a sensible policy,” said Stenehjem. “We want to respond to the media and appreciate your comments.”

Dalrymple also raised concerns about the “frequency of closed-door board meetings,” which are regularly used to discuss ongoing litigation in the absence of reporters. She said she hoped the new media policy did not increase the frequency of these closed meetings and urged the board to “only attend board meetings when legal strategy is being discussed”, not broader court updates.

Stenehjem and Foreign Minister Al Jaeger, also a board member, said during the meeting that they believe the board has adequately implemented the executive branch meetings and has ensured that general case updates are not discussed during these times.

In a post-meeting interview, Smith said she was encouraged by contributions from several board members that the new media policy would not have unintended consequences such as restrictions on public access.

The board made no changes to the policy based on the comments submitted.

In addition to Stenehjem, Jaeger and Burgum, the state board consists of the state treasurer Thomas Beadle and the school inspector Kirsten Baesler.

Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a member of the Report for America Corps, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

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