Knox won't join camera-shy school boards

By Hugh Willett

The Knox County school board doesn't plan to follow a Tennessee School Board Association recommendation that might limit the use of cameras or video recorders at board meetings, but at least one other local school board will.

Blount County has already accepted the recommendation from TSBA that changes its existing policy regarding news coverage of school board meetings, according to Jane Morton, a member of the policy committee.

The new policy states that the press shall not bring cameras to board meetings without the consent of the executive committee. The executive committee is composed of the schools director and the chair of the school board, Morton said.

"We took the recommendation directly from the TSBA," Morton said. "Technically, the policy is in effect now."

Loudon County is also considering changes to its existing policy, enacted in 2000, which already allows the school board to restrict use of cameras and video recorders by the press without permission of the board.

This comes after Pat Hunter, a Loudon County activist who videotapes most public meetings, posted clips on her Web site earlier this month from a school board budget workshop, along with other examples of county politicians berating residents at public meetings.

The changes to the policy would include the option of placing the same restrictions on public use of video recording equipment. The board will discuss the changes at a workshop tonight.

The Anderson County school board is going to review the policy next week, according to board Chairman John Burrell.

Knox County's school board is satisfied with its current policies and doesn't plan to follow the TSBA recommendation, according to board Chairwoman Indya Kincannon.

"At this point in time I believe our current policy works well, and I wouldn't support changing it to limit the use of cameras or recording devices," she said.

The TSBA made its recommendation to give school boards the ability to control the use of cameras - both photographic and video - when they might be interfering with the conduct of the meeting, according to Steve Doremus, director of communications for the Nashville-based TSBA.

"We've recommended a similar policy for years," he said. "The only changes we have added recently have to do with including the public in the policy due to the rise of new media such as bloggers."

Kincannon said she is aware of the rise of new media, but doesn't believe their presence changes the situation.

"You are never going to stop citizen journalists," she said. "If we err, it should be on the side of openness."

According to Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, policies restricting the use of cameras or video recording devices at public meetings, including school board meetings, are unconstitutional.

Although the recent TSBA recommendation cites an October 1995 state attorney general's opinion supporting the right of school boards to limit access of cameras, it ignores a subsequent December 1995 AG opinion that nullified the earlier opinion, Gibson said.

Loosely worded policies that allow school boards to ban cameras are the gateway to the slippery slope, Gibson said. School boards often create controversy then try to limit controversy by going behind closed doors, he said.

Blount County school board Chairman Chris Cantrell said he was not aware of the proposed changes to the policy regarding video recording.

Cantrell said he generally has no problem with allowing the press or public to bring cameras to the meetings but believes that their presence can lead to grandstanding.

"When we have a controversy everyone shows up, including the TV cameras; They come out of the woodwork," he said.