On February 5, the University of Georgia First Amendment Clinic sent its second letter to the Oconee County School Board asking for increased transparency with the community, improved virtual access to board meetings, and community members to unlock their Twitter account.
The First Amendment Clinic is a semester-long course offered to law students after completing their first year of UGA law school.
The clinic, which first opened in August 2020, is led by clinic colleague Samantha Hamilton and director Clare Norins.
Mark Bailey, Davis Wright, and Amy Morgia, students at the clinic, said the course was incredibly hands-on and the clinic itself works much like a small law firm.
“Mark, me and Amy wrote this letter [to Oconee County] It was a really cool experience working with Professor Norins and Sam, ”said Wright.
First Amendment issues are brought to the clinic through referrals from First Amendment advocacy organizations or through the contact form on the clinic’s website. Transparency issues within the OCSB were first brought to the clinic’s attention through the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, of which Norins is a board member.
Each time the clinic receives a memorandum of admission information, students initiate an investigation into the facts presented in the claim and use legal research to assess whether any law has been violated.
“We looked at the Open Meetings Act, looked at the Open Records Act, saw what the facts actually were, and then [we] We have determined whether or not we believe these facts led to a violation of the law, ”Wright said.
The ORA is an act under the Official Code of Georgia that provides the public with the ability to solicit and obtain public records from government organizations. The OMA is a law that requires government organizations such as public schools to publicly document minutes of meetings and to publish advance notice of meetings for community members who wish to attend.
The clinic said it had not encountered any issues with the board’s compliance with the ORA and instead focused its letter on the board’s compliance with the OMA.
Lack of accessibility
Hamilton said it was important to understand that the pandemic is throwing a wrench into a typical analysis of what is being asked of the government under the OMA. OCSB is not legally obliged to broadcast its meetings via live stream or to comment publicly, but this contradicts the principle according to which the OMA was created: transparency.
According to the letter, the board broadcast the spring and early summer meetings via livestream, but switched to uploading recordings to YouTube in mid-July, shortly after moving back to a face-to-face meeting.
The letter noted that OCSB Chairman Tom Odom continues to attend meetings remotely.
“It is surprising that the CEO does not risk physically attending board meetings, but that members of the public with the same health concerns risk their lives to gain access to the meetings and have their voices heard on the board. Elected officials should not afford special treatment while endangering the health and safety of their constituents, ”the letter said
In fact, county residents who are wary of attending public gatherings during the pandemic have limited ability to attend. According to the letter, the board does not allow community members to post public comments remotely.
Jonathan Wallace, a former District 119 state representative with children in Oconee County schools, personally attended a board meeting on behalf of his friend, who wanted to speak but did not feel safe.
“They didn’t want to risk it because at the time people came up and had their say and didn’t wear masks at these meetings,” Wallace said.
Those who are not present in person also have to wait until the recording of the meeting is published in order to hear the discussions and deliberations.
“Why would someone who can’t attend in person have to wait a day to find out what happened in the boardroom meeting when live streaming technology is available?” Kendra Kline, a Clarke County-based disability rights attorney, said in an email to The Red & Black.
Kline sent a complaint, which was included as an exhibit in the clinic’s second letter, to the board of directors that their decision not to host live-stream meetings was a burden for people with disabilities in the community.
“The board made no attempts to address or resolve my complaints,” said Kline. “I’ve been told that if I want access to board meetings, I can attend them in person.”
Federal disability law requires school systems like Oconee County to make their programs and services equally accessible to people with disabilities.
“That includes their meetings as well as their buildings,” said Bailey.
“By restricting public comments to those who can physically attend the meeting, the Board is making public comments inaccessible to individuals unless they are willing to take the risk of serious illness, thereby preventing equal access to a public forum is granted without justification, “wrote the clinic.
According to the Georgia Department of Health’s County Indicator Report for the first two weeks of February, Oconee is one of many counties in Georgia suspected of having high levels of COVID-19 transmission.
This is a negativity-free zone
The letter alleged that the board committed unlawful viewpoint discrimination by blocking users voicing dissident opinions on their official OCS Twitter account.
Kline said she was blocked for “tweeting Superintendent Jason Branch critical of an award he won from the Georgia School Public Relations Association.”
Kline noted in her tweet that GSPRA President Anisa Sullivan Jimenez also serves as the communications director for OCS.
Sullivan Jimenez said in an email to The Red & Black: “Individuals have always been welcome to share their views [on social media]. However, defamation and personal attacks against employees and students of the school system are still not supported on social media platforms of the school system. “
Recently, courts have ruled that official government social media accounts are a public forum. Blocking certain users is akin to kicking someone out of town hall for taking the point. Both are violations of the first change.
The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the case of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University against Donald Trump that Trump, in his capacity as a civil servant, had committed unlawful discrimination from the point of view of blocking certain accounts that express critical opinions engagement with his Twitter Account – which was otherwise open to the public.
The clinic urged the board to immediately release Kline and any other members of the public who may have been banned from OCS ‘Twitter account due to the perspective of their speech.
Arrival of an answer
The clinic asked for a reply to its letter to OCS by February 22nd and received one on February 18th.
The letter stated that “the majority of public authorities do not stream their meetings for simultaneous viewing” and that “Oconee County’s Education Board is fully in compliance with the Open Sessions Act.”
Hamilton said it was too early to say how the clinic would react to the latest letter from the board of directors.
Through February 18, Kline said she was still blocked on Twitter and never received a response from the board as to why they would not hold live streaming board meetings or allow virtual public comments.
“I imagine at least part of the reason is because they see this as a burden,” Kline said.