UGA First Amendment Clinic, residents ask transparency of Oconee County School Board

On Feb. 5, the University of Georgia’s First Amendment clinic sent its second letter to the Oconee County School Board asking for the board to increase transparency with the community, promote more virtual accessibility to board meetings and unblock members of the community on its Twitter account.

The First Amendment clinic is a semester-long course offered at UGA’s law school to law students after the completion of their first year.

The clinic, which first launched in August 2020, is led by clinic fellow Samantha Hamilton and director Clare Norins.

Mark Bailey, Davis Wright and Amy Morgia, students of the clinic, said the course is incredibly hands-on and the clinic itself functions similarly to a small law firm.

“Mark, me and Amy were writing that letter [to Oconee County] right alongside Professor Norins and Sam, so it was a really cool experience to be involved with,” Wright said.

First Amendment issues are brought to the clinic through referrals from First Amendment advocacy organizations or via the contact form on the clinic’s website. Transparency issues within OCSB were first brought to the clinic’s attention through the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, at which Norins is a board member.

Everytime the clinic gets a memorandum of intake information, students initiate an investigation into the facts presented in the claim and use legal research to evaluate whether any laws were broken.

“We looked into the Open Meetings Act, looked into the Open Records Act, established what the facts actually were and then [we] established whether or not those facts led to a violation of the law, in our opinion,” Wright said.

The ORA is a statute with the Official Code of Georgia that provides the public with an outlet to request and receive public records from government organizations. The OMA is a statute that requires government organizations, such as public schools, to publicly document meeting minutes and post prior notice of meetings for community members that wish to attend.

The clinic said they did not find any issues with the board’s compliance to the ORA and instead focused their letter on the board’s compliance with the OMA.

A lack of accessibility

Hamilton said it’s important to understand that the pandemic throws a wrench into a typical analysis of what is required of the government under the OMA. While OCSB is not required by law to livestream its meetings or allow people to publicly comment from the livestream, failure to do so goes against the principle on which the OMA was created: transparency.

According to the letter, the board livestreamed meetings throughout the spring and early summer but switched to uploading recordings to YouTube in mid-July, shortly after transitioning back to meeting in person.

The letter notes that OCSB Chair Tom Odom continues to participate in meetings remotely.

“It is surprising that the Board Chair will not risk physically attending Board meetings, yet requires members of the public with the same health concerns to risk their lives to have access to the meetings and make their voices heard before the Board. Elected officials should not afford themselves special treatment while endangering the health and safety of their constituents,” the letter said

Indeed, residents of the county who remain cautious of attending public gatherings during the pandemic are limited in their ability to participate. According to the letter, the board does not allow community members to make public comments remotely.

Jonathan Wallace, a former state representative for District 119 with children in Oconee County schools, attended a board meeting in person on behalf of his friend who wanted to speak but did not feel safe doing so.

“They didn’t want to risk it because, at the time, folks were coming to speak who were not wearing masks at those meetings,” Wallace said.

Those who do not attend in person also have to wait until the recording of the meeting is posted to listen to the discussions and deliberations.

“Why should someone who can’t attend in person have to wait a day to find out what happened in the board meeting when live-streaming technology is readily available?” Kendra Kline, a resident of Clarke county and local disability rights advocate, said in an email to The Red & Black.

Kline sent a complaint, included as an exhibit in the clinic’s second letter, to the board that their decision not to live-stream meetings was burdensome to people in the community with disabilities.

“The board made no attempts to address or remedy my complaints,” Kline said. “I was told if I wanted access to board meetings, I was free to attend them in person.”

Federal disability law requires school systems such as Oconee County to make their programs and services equally accessible to individuals with disabilities.

“That includes their meetings just like their buildings,” Bailey said.

“By restricting public comment to those who can physically join the meeting, the Board renders public comment inaccessible to individuals unless they are willing to risk incurring a serious illness, thereby failing to provide equal access to a public forum without justification,” the clinic wrote.

According to data in the Georgia Department of Health’s county indicator report from the first two weeks in February, Oconee is one of many counties in Georgia considered to have high transmission of COVID-19.

This is a negativity-free zone

The letter alleged that the board engaged in unlawful viewpoint discrimination by blocking users expressing dissident opinions on their official OCS Twitter account.

Kline said she was blocked for “making a tweet critical of Superintendent Jason Branch regarding an award he won from the Georgia School Public Relations Association.”

Kline noted in her tweet that the president of GSPRA, Anisa Sullivan Jimenez, also serves as the director of communications for OCS.

Sullivan Jimenez said in an email with The Red & Black, “Individuals have always been welcome to share their opinions [on social media]. However, slander and personal attacks against school system employees and students will continue being unsupported on school system social media platforms.”

Courts have ruled in recent cases that official government social media accounts constitute a public forum and blocking certain users is akin to throwing someone out of a town hall because of the viewpoint they’re expressing. Both are violations of the First Amendment.

The Court of Appeals in the 2nd circuit held in the case of Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University v. Donald Trump that Trump, in his capacity as a public official, had engaged in unlawful viewpoint discrimination for blocking certain accounts that expressed critical opinions from engaging with his Twitter account – which was otherwise open to the public for engagement.

The clinic requested that the board promptly unblock Kline and any other members of the public that may have been excluded from OCS’s Twitter account based on the perspective of their speech.

Arrival of an answer

The clinic requested a response to its letter to OCS by Feb. 22 and received one on Feb. 18.

The letter said that “the majority of public bodies do not stream their meetings for simultaneous viewing” and argued that “the Oconee County Board of Education is fully in compliance with the Open Meetings Act.”

Additionally, the board’s attorney wrote that, “As to the first amendment [sic] issues that you raise, the individual responsible for monitoring and maintaining the District’s social media has blocked very few posts or individuals and each time it has involved a violation of the terms of use.”

Hamilton said it is too soon to tell how the clinic will respond to the board’s most recent letter.

As of Feb. 18, Kline said she remains blocked on Twitter and has never gotten an answer from the board as to why they won’t live-stream board meetings or allow virtual public comment.

“I imagine at least part of the reason is because they view doing so as a burden,” Kline said.

Published by Emily G. Garcia

Enterprise Reporter at The Red & Black

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