By Sharon Dunten, Assistant Regional Director, Society of Professional Journalists- Region 3; freelance journalist based out of Atlanta, Georgia.
ALABAMA — It’s becoming a disturbing trend in small town America: government officials are banning the press and sometimes their own citizens from open meetings. Case in point: Paint Rock, Alabama. It is nestled by steep mountains and a river in the Paint Rock Valley of northeastern Alabama. The town is, as one Alabama website calls it “a little kingdom, set apart … unspoiled.”
And yet, it is 2018.
Brandon Cox, publisher of the Jackson County Sentinel, a newspaper that serves northeast Alabama, wrote a June 8 Op-Ed, “Paint Rock’s meeting rules are just flat illegal: Open Meetings: Not a suggestion, but the law,” on his objections to Paint Rock, Alabama’s town council ruling that:
“Members of the media, i.e.: newspaper, television, radio, etc. will not be allowed without prior approval form the county majority. When asking for approval, you must present a valid reason/justification for the media to attend.”
AND, “Recordings of any meeting of the town council is not permitted. Posting of any Town minutes, email to council members, financial statements, etc., to ANY authorized media source is strictly forbidden.”
[Brandon] Cox wrote, “We couldn’t believe what we were seeing.”
And the Paint Rock town clerk told Cox that she thought the mayor, Brenda Fix, had consulted the Alabama League of Municipalities about the guidelines.
Of course, Cox wrote that he contacted a few attorneys and was told that Paint Rock’s town council was in violation of the Alabama Open Meetings Act and “its rules are indefensible in court.”
Furthermore, Cox quoted Supreme Court Judge Hugo Black 1971 statement, “In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave us the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was also protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.”
Yes, there is the executive session part of government meetings where a council can go behind close doors to talk about personnel issues, etc. The Code of Alabama 1975, Section 36-25A-7 reads that there are only nine legitimate reasons to conduct an executive session. But this is not what the Paint Rock officials is ruling about in their meeting guidelines.
The Alabama Open Meetings Act reads, “It is the policy of this state that the deliberate process of government bodies to be open to the public.”
If that wasn’t enough, the Paint Rock officials also ruled “All regular meetings are open to the residents/property owners of the Town of Paint Rock. Anyone not residing in the town limits, or anyone not owning property within the town limits will not be permitted without prior approval of the council.”
Scary isn’t it.
Again, the act reads, “open or public portion of a meeting is that portion which has not been closed for executive session … and which is conducted so that constituents of the government body and citizens of this state could, if so desired, attend and observe.”
Cox wrote in his final statements of the article that he urges the Paint Rock residents to encourage its town leaders to change the rulings “to prevent embarrassing, expensive litigation” and that to recognize that the town council’s decisions were misguided.
At the time of publishing this Op-Ed, Cox and the Jackson County Sentinel wrote that they do not want to take the path to use the part of the law that might lead to civil action. In Section 9 of the Alabama Open Meetings Act, it that states, “”enforcement of this act may be sought by civil action brought in the county where the government body’s primary office is located by any media organization, any Alabama citizen impacted by the alleged violation to an extent which is greater than the impact on the public at large, the Attorney General, the district attorney attorney for the circuit in which the governmental body is located.”
Editor’s Note: The Society of Professional Journalists is the watchdog of press freedoms across the nation and is on the front lines for assaults to the First Amendment and when lawmakers attempt to restrict the public’s access to documents (and open meetings) and the government’s business. SPJ works with Project Sunshine, a network of volunteers in each state that focuses the attention of SPJ chapters and leaders on Freedom of Information problems, issues, needs and solutions at the local, chapter, state, regional and national level. At times, the SPJ’s national FOI Committee is often called upon to intervene in instances where the media is restricted.
– Sharon Dunten is editor of SizingUpTheSouth.com and is the SPJ Region 3 Assistant Regional Director. She is a freelance journalist/photojournalist at Dunten Media Services LLC. firstname.lastname@example.org