The Greene County Board of Education’s decision to ban TV cameras from its public meetings appears to be based on a recommended camera policy by the the Tennessee School Board Association.
The school board association sets out best practices for its members. A recommended meeting policy contains the same language that is being reported as in the Greene County school board policy:
“No one shall bring a camera, camcorder or other photographic equipment to Board meetings without the consent of the Board,” reads TSBA’s recommendation. The Greene County school board policy differs only that it starts “The press shall not bring…”
The association insists its recommended language is not a “ban” on TV cameras, but rather allows the local school board to require media with such equipment to notify them, and ask for permission, before it is brought, said Ben Torres, director of research and communication for TSBA.
“If they’re going to be filmed, it would be nice for the school board to have notice ahead of time,” Torres said, so, for example, that it could let participants at the meeting know that TV cameras would be present.
WJHL Channel 11, whose reporter was not allowed to bring her video camera into the meeting last night, reported that it was told that “snippets give the wrong impression.” The director of schools, Vicki Kirk, said on Twitter after the meeting that “No video – helps to prevent a sound-bite view.”
The WJHL reporter had been at the meeting the month before with a camera, and produced a story using video from the meeting where mothers brought up issues of alleged bullying of students by school staff.
WJHL reported that Kirk told them the school board doesn’t feel comfortable being filmed, even to the point that it voted not to record their full meeting themselves.
Loniel Greene Jr., director of policy services and staff attorney for TSBA, pointed to an Attorney General’s opinion in 1995 that indicated a school board could decide to restrict video cameras or other photographic equipment “if the board felt having cameras would create a public safety issue or impede the orderly transaction of board business.”
There were two Attorney General opinions in 1995 on the issue. The second one, released Dec. 28, 1995, was a reconsideration of the first opinion. In this opinion the Attorney General said:
Under Article I, Section 19 of the Tennessee Constitution, a city council may only regulate access to its public meetings in a manner that reasonably serves public safety and welfare, or its ability to conduct orderly and efficient proceedings. Based on the authorities discussed above, it is the opinion of this Office that these interests would not be deemed sufficient to justify a total ban on video and photographic equipment at city council meetings or on photographing those present at the meeting. The breadth of the proposed total ban goes well beyond that which is reasonably related to the city’s legitimate interests. This Office is further of the opinion that city governing bodies may regulate the use of such devices, but only in a manner reasonably calculated to serve the public safety and welfare or the interest in conducting efficient and orderly public meetings. For example, a city council may prevent cameras from being operated in a manner that actually disrupts a council’s proceedings, that presents a danger to the public safety, or that otherwise prevents the council from conducting an orderly and efficient meeting. Moreover, a city board would not be required to make special provisions in order to accommodate such devices.
Greene said the association’s school board policy is not meant to prevent media coverage for just any reason, and includes a reference to the earlier Attorney General opinion which lists acceptable criteria for restrictions.
“It can’t be based on you do not like to be recorded,” Greene told TCOG.
Deborah Fisher is executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, which provides education and research on public records and open meetings laws in Tennessee.