OPINION: Oconee school board isn’t giving true access during pandemic

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Credit: Picture Mosaics LLC

Credit: Picture Mosaics LLC

University of Georgia law students take up cause of parents who want livestreamed meetings and virtual commenting

The First Amendment Clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law defends and advances freedoms of speech, press, assembly and petition through direct client representation and advocacy, and provides law students with the real-world practical experience to become leaders on First Amendment issues.

Here, four law students from that clinic question why the Oconee County school board won’t livestream its meetings or allow virtual public comment during a global pandemic.

By Mark Bailey, Taran Harmon-Walker, Michael Sloman, and Davis M. Wright

Ever since Oconee County Schools released its school reopening plan in July, community members have been worried about insufficient pandemic safety protocols in schools, pleading for the administration to implement a mask mandate. But to express these concerns at the school board monthly meetings, attendees must gather in a room both too small to socially distance and where attendees are not required to wear masks.

Students, parents, and concerned community members have asked the Oconee board to livestream its meetings so they can safely engage with their local officials. Yet, the board has repeatedly refused, responding that “everyone has had to make individual decisions about what activities, meetings or gatherings they attend and what mitigation measures they take.”

This puts community members in a Catch-22: Either you do not participate in local school governance, or you place yourself and your loved ones at risk of exposure to COVID-19. In the digital age, when remote communication is easier than ever before, why has the Oconee County school board refused to livestream its meetings and dismissed its community’s wholly legitimate concerns during a global health crisis?

Meaningful access to local government

The public’s right to access their government and petition for grievances is not a right of convenience; it is a constitutional freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Community members first reached out to the University of Georgia Law School’s First Amendment Clinic because, since June 2020, they had been denied safe, meaningful access to board meetings. After the clinic wrote to the board, it began uploading recordings of its meetings the day after the meeting.

But, to date, the board has still refused to livestream or allow virtual public comment, despite having shown the technological capability to do so in the early days of the pandemic.

University of Georgia School of Law students Michael Sloman (left) and Taran Harmon-Walker (right)
University of Georgia School of Law students Michael Sloman (left) and Taran Harmon-Walker (right)

Credit: Contributed/UGA

Credit: Contributed/UGA

This is not a debate on personal preferences about pandemic safety. This is about providing community members with government transparency consistent with the spirit of the Georgia Open Meetings Act. This is also about the First Amendment right of access, which protects the public’s ability to speak, observe, and receive information, all relating to government affairs.

As the school board is quick to point out, the open meetings law does not mandate that the board livestream its meetings when the public may attend in person. However, in a global pandemic where non-socially-distanced, indoor group gatherings entail a health and safety risk, livestreaming is the only way to make government access meaningful. The public should not have to choose, as the Oconee board counsel suggests, between participation in local school board meetings and health.

Indeed, because of this very dilemma, the Oconee school board chair himself remotely attended every meeting from June of 2020 to March of this year. If the board chair can attend and participate remotely, why not members of the public?

University of Georgia School of Law students Davis M. Wright (left) and Mark Bailey (right)
University of Georgia School of Law students Davis M. Wright (left) and Mark Bailey (right)

Credit: University of Georgia School of Law

Credit: University of Georgia School of Law

With the increasing availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, hopefully it will soon be safer to be in a small, crowded room with people not wearing masks. But the board’s refusal to livestream begs the question: If the board will not make basic accommodations for its community during the height of a once-in-a-century global pandemic, what will happen when only a single student or parent needs an access accommodation in the future?

Oconee’s attitude should be of concern to anyone who believes in open government, as this approach to public governance poses concerns that extend beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Silencing dissent through social media blocking

While refusing to livestream or allow virtual public comment at its board meetings, OCS has also simultaneously censored its critics.

Oconee County Schools runs a Twitter account where it publishes official announcements about school operations and policy and where members of the public are allowed to tweet and comment, enabling “town hall”-level dialogue. In 2020, the district blocked both an individual who criticized the school superintendent and a community group called Safety First, which has advocated for more COVID-protection measures in schools.

By preventing these users from both accessing the important information on the account and participating in discussion about matters of public concern simply because they expressed a critical perspective, Oconee is discriminating based on viewpoint. The First Amendment does not permit a government entity to pick winners and losers in this manner where the government has created a public forum for speech.

Some of the most famous politicians in the United States have faced repercussions for blocking those they disagree with from their social media accounts, including Donald Trump and Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. The First Amendment prevents politicians from blocking their dissenters, and, likewise, OCS lacks the constitutional authority to block community criticism.

The First Amendment Clinic has therefore called on Oconee County Schools to unblock the censored community member and the Safety First group from its Twitter account and to establish clearly published, viewpoint-neutral rules for its account going forward.

Free speech, the right to petition, and transparency are bedrock principles of democratic governance. Oconee disrespects these principles when it denies meaningful access to its board meetings and blocks its critics from its public forum Twitter account. Oconee County Schools owes its community better.

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