The Greene County school board chairman apologized last night to “the board and to the public” over the TV camera ban from its public meeting last month, according to WJHL News Channel 11 and The Greeneville Sun. The board also proposed language that would change its camera policy.
However, an Tennessee Attorney General’s opinion about banning cameras from public meetings says they should only be prohibited if they create a safety problem or disturb the orderly conduct of the meeting.
Neither of those reasons was given to the WJHL reporter, Kylie McGivern, who was asked not to bring her TV camera into the February board meeting of the Greene County school board. The school’s director said later that banning TV cameras helped to avoid the “sound-bite view” of what happened at a meeting.
WJHL reported yesterday that the school board suggested language to revise its camera policy and will vote on it at its next meeting. The new language says: “Cameras or any recording devices shall be permitted in open meetings of the Board. Should use of cameras or other recording devices become a hindrance or pose a threat to public safety, their removal may be required by majority vote of the board.”
Board chairman Nathan Brown told the board and the public last night that he made a mistake in asking WJHL to not film the meeting, WJHL reported.
“The board had no input on the matter. At the time, I was attempting to follow board policy. Did I handle it poorly? Yes, I most certainly did. I now realize that I should have consulted the board first. I have always heard hindsight is 20/20, and what I would give if I could go back and change things. But all I, all we can do is move forward and try to fix this policy. Again, I sincerely apologize to the citizens of Greene County, our school system, and to my fellow board members for the harm that this has caused.”
WJHL also reported that two board members before the meeting expressed concern about the camera ban.
“They’re covering a story! Do we want the media to start making judgements on what they should go ahead and report and not report? Do we as a board want to go ahead and put that stipulation on them? It’s called the FREE PRESS for a reason,” board member Deborah Johnson said.
“I feel like we’re running our school system more as a private business, than a public entity,” board member Kathy Austin said.
The issue of the camera ban raised concerns throughout the state. The school board association, which recommends the sample camera policy, has defended it, saying it does not constitute a ban but rather allows schools boards to choose to prohibit cameras if they want.
-Deborah Fisher is executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, an alliance of citizens, media and good government groups working to promote transparency in government operations throughout the state.