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Banning press from public events is wrong, possibly illegal

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Banning press from public events is wrong, possibly illegal

Last week, Jon Hunter, the interim superintendent of the Mechanicville school district did something unusual, and possibly against state law, by prohibiting the press from attending his district's graduation.

The district had invited a controversial speaker to address grads, and Mr. Hunter no doubt didn't want the press either covering what the speaker said or, more likely, covering whatever protests might be going on among graduates or members of the audience.

Our editorial on this decision appeared in Friday's paper.

There are a number of problems with the press ban, besides the fact that it took the focus off the graduates and put it on the superintendent and the guest speaker.

One is that this event was taking place on taxpayer-funded grounds and was open to the public.

Unless something's changed, members of the press are also members of the general public, regardless of their profession or purpose. Just because they're attending in a professional capacity for a news organization doesn't change that.

The district doesn't have to go out of its way to provide special accommodations or space to the press. But as long as members of the media weren't disrupting the ceremony in any way, there was no legitimate reason to keep them out.

That's one. Another is that it sets a dangerous precedent.

Fear of public exposure or embarrassment is no reason to exclude the press from government meetings or deny access to public records.

School districts and other government entities that fear bad publicity can't be allowed to pick and choose what public events the press is allowed to attend. If this kind of sanction against the press takes hold, members of the public will never find out what happens at any potentially controversial event that they didn't personally attend. 

While a graduation ceremony doesn't constitute a public meeting subject to the Open Meetings Law, the same principles apply.

Conferring degrees on students is an official action of the school board, in much the same way a swearing-in ceremony for newly elected public officials would be. So why shouldn't the press be allowed to observe?

Another thought: Is the school board in attendance and is it conducting public business? Legally, probably not. But practically, it is. What justification, therefore, is there to exclude the press from this ceremony and not another gathering of the board in which the public is invited to attend?

If any section of New York law applies here, it might not be the Open Meetings Law, but rather state Education Law, with regard to the use of school property for public functions.

In an advisory opinion from 1993, the state Committee on Open Government wrote: 

"Depending upon its purpose, an event held on school property might be required to be conducted in public, even though the event does not involve a public body or the Open Meetings Law. The Education Law enables a board of education to authorize that school property be used for various purposes, including:

"For holding social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainments, and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community; but such meetings, entertainment and uses shall be non-exclusive and shall be open to the general public" [§414(1)(c)].

Therefore, if an entity, such as a PTA, or perhaps a citizens' committee, meets on school property for a "civic" purpose, or for a purpose "pertaining to the welfare of the community", their meetings would appear to be open to the public, even if the Open Meetings Law does not apply."

A graduation ceremony, particularly one for the school district hosting the event, could easily fall under this category. 

On basic principle, it was wrong for the interim superintendent to prohibit the press from attending the graduation ceremony. But also, where a public event was being held on public property at taxpayer expense and with no other restrictions on who was allowed to attend, school administrators appear to have had no legal grounds for prohibiting press coverage, either.

Banning the press from such events represents a slippery slope on the road to closing other public events to media coverage when the coverage doesn't suit the government body hosting the event.

This can't be allowed to happen again.