The Janesville gazette reports that the Milton School Board shut down a meeting Monday night because they were too flustered by a citizen recording them. Local resident John Fena quietly set up a video camera to record the proceedings – something expressly allowed by Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law. The Superintendent and at least two school board members demanded that Fena stop recording, but he stood his ground. When he refused, the school board took the extraordinary (and cowardly) step of adjourning the meeting, leaving several items on the agenda unaddressed.
The school officials are 100% wrong, and hopefully their attorney straightens them out. Any person attending a meeting has the right to record it or photograph it under Wis. Stat. § 19.90, so long as they don’t interfere with the proceedings. According to the story, board member Rob Roy claimed that the mere act of recording changed how people would act, which would “interfere” with the meeting. Hogwash. Balderdash. Pick your expression of dismissive disbelief. If that were true, no recording could ever be permitted. Such an exception would swallow the entire rule.
Board members also expressed worry that Fena would use the recordings for some nefarious purpose. This is a common refrain we hear about open meetings. In our case against the Appleton Area School District, members of a committee testified they didn’t hold their meetings in public in part because they were worried that our client would attend and report on what was said there – they assumed he wouldn’t report accurately. But recording helps make sure that reports of what happened are accurate. It also helps make sure that meeting minutes accurately reflect what happened, which is one of Fena’s primary concerns.
Milton School Board’s members need to be aware that quietly videotaping a meeting must be allowed, and refusing to allow it violates the Open Meetings Law. They can be hit with fines of up to $300 each for breaking the law or even just attending a meeting held in violation of the law. Hopefully they make the right choice and serve the public in a fully open manner like they are supposed to.