Loudon board seeks control of cameras in meetings

By Hugh Willett knoxnews.com

LOUDON - The Loudon County Board of Education this week will discuss enforcing a policy that might prevent members of the public and press from bringing cameras or video recorders to its meetings.

According to the office of the director of Loudon County schools, the policy review scheduled for a workshop Thursday was motivated by the Tennessee School Board Association and suggested at an August 14 workshop.

Steve Doremus, communications director for the TSBA, confirmed that the organization recently suggested boards review their media policies and to include the public along with the press.

The policy change is intended to include new media such as bloggers, Doremus said. The purpose of the policy is not to restrict media coverage but to give the board some control in the case of a situation where cameras or recording equipment might be interfering with the conduct of the meeting, he said.

The Loudon County policy on board meeting news coverage, enacted in November 2000, states in part that the press shall not bring a camera, camcorder or other photographic equipment to board meetings without the consent of the board.

The policy cites an October 1995 state attorney general's opinion that allowed such restrictions if the recording interferes with the meeting. The TSBA request for policy review also cites the same 1995 opinion.

The problem with citing the October 1995 opinion, according to Frank Gibson of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government is that the opinion was found to be unconstitutional in a subsequent December 1995 state attorney general's opinion.

"The second opinion specifically rescinded the earlier opinion," Gibson said. "Enforcing the policy based on the first opinion is unconstitutional."

According to Gibson, when the first opinion was rendered it was immediately challenged by his organization and attorneys for several newspapers including the News Sentinel. The second opinion was requested to make it clear such restrictions on public meetings were not constitutional.

"If the school board wants to try and enforce this policy, they will be opening themselves up to a lawsuit," Gibson said.

The Loudon County panel is not the only school board in Tennessee considering such restrictions. A school board in Jackson also has been discussing restricting cameras at meetings unless the board gives its consent.

In a recent editorial, the Jackson Sun pointed out that such restrictions were unconstitutional and that the public has a right to see, photograph, record, take notes or otherwise document what goes on in open meetings of its public bodies.

Gibson said that politicians shouldn't be afraid of being recorded during public meetings.

"If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," Gibson said.

Some Loudon County school board meetings have been getting rather heated. During a recent discussion on whether to give raises to teachers or build new schools, some board members raised their voices and pounded fists on a table.

Pat Hunter, a Loudon County activist who videotapes most public meetings, posted clips on her Web site from the budget workshop along with other examples of county politicians berating citizens at public meetings. Click Here For Video

Hunter said she feels the Loudon County policy review is directed at her efforts to publicize the conduct of county officials.

"The cameras simply serve as the eyes and ears of the public who cannot attend the meetings," Hunter said.

Doremus pointed out that the policy review was recommended six to eight months ago and could not be directed at Hunter's Web site.

Foot Note: As a member of the board, I was unaware of the proposal to invoke a camera ban at board meetings. I do not know which if any board members requested this item to be on the agenda. If this is in fact true, I for one feel this is one of the most idiotic attempts to censer the press and public I've ever heard of and have no intention to support the proposal. If you don't want to be seen on video acting like an idiot, don't act like an idiot.