Jason Davis: Free press, until we disagree

Mar. 03, 2014 @ 12:00 AM

It’s amazing what good people can do when they feel they’re backed into a corner.

Normal, sane, freedom-loving individuals can make decisions and impassioned pleas for the most ludicrous stances when it’s their name, reputation or livelihood on the line.

A case in point is the Greene County Board of Education’s decision last week to forbid a news crew from filming a board meeting.

One has to think that these elected officials are reasonably intelligent. In fact, I have a friend that has lived in the area, and he says Director of Schools Dr. Vicki Kirk is a thoroughly capable administrator that he’d trust in almost any school-related situation.

But she and her board made a huge mistake.

Common sense would dictate that a public meeting, held by a board that oversees an annual budget of millions of taxpayer dollars, should allow video recording — not just from the media, but by any citizen present, as long as the recording is done in a way that’s not disruptive to the meeting.

But, in what seems an effort to shape news coverage, the board kept out the cameras of a Johnson City CBS affiliate.

By doing so, the board has now put what was a local issue under a statewide microscope.

Would the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government (TCOG) or news media in Memphis or Nashville have cared one whit about their local issue? No. Do they care that you’ve effectively shut out a news organization from reporting a public meeting? You better believe it.

At a time when the trust of government is at an all-time low, local governments should be striving to make things more transparent to regain the public’s trust.

Of course, with transparency comes accountability and the decrease of political power and influence.

While the Greene County officials that made the decision may have not been seeking to increase either their power or influence with last week’s power play, the slippery slope that would be created by letting the decision slip by could be disastrous.

Imagine if the board’s policy went unchallenged. How long would it be before another board adopted or enforced such a policy? How long before a city said still cameras wouldn’t be allowed? What about audio recordings? Maybe the meetings shouldn’t be public at all, they might say, we can get more done without that pesky public input.

Call it naiveté, but I generally believe most people seek public office because they think they can make a positive difference for their community. In many cases those elected are true statemen — that is, they do right for the people they represent, putting the public, their constituents, before self. 

But there are some that, once elected, become entrenched and affected by the process. Often they become jaded and even corrupted. They begin to treat the office or position they hold as if it’s their own — not an office belonging to the public they represent.

And its for that very reason that our founding fathers established the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment. It’s for that reason that brave citizens fought against the Alien and Sedition Acts which made it illegal to criticize the government. 

Even in my relatively young journalism career, which started in the mid-1990s, I’ve seen good people — even great people — bend the laws of open government to suit their own personal needs and desires.

It’s often difficult to prove these allegations, as the very point of the act is to keep activities and decisions secret.

But in this particular case, the group in question is acting in full view of the people to suppress what they see as a threat.

It’s my hope that, as is mentioned in our accompanying editorial today, the other media that covers the Greene County Board of Education will not be complacent. It would be all too easy to take the school board’s side against an out-of-town TV station that they feel has wronged them.

In fact, the board may even provide some exclusivity perks to those that expouse their opinions in a favorable light. 

But my question for those outlets would be this: What’s going to happen when you offend the board? It’s inevitably going to happen. That’s the nature of media/government relationships. Will they limit your access? Will they choose to enact the ban on your still photography (which, by the way, is also written into their rarely-enforced policy)?

Even if the television station is guilty of sloppy or “inaccurate” journalism, as the board has alleged, their right to access and report on the meetings should not be abridged — and neither should anyone else’s.