Sunday, February 07, 2021

Letter From University of Georgia Legal Clinic Calls On Oconee County School Board To Recognize First Amendment Rights

***Asks For Voluntary Change Of Policy And Procedures***

Representatives of the First Amendment Clinic in the School of Law at the University of Georgia are asking the Oconee County Board of Education to change its policies to recognize the first amendment rights of Oconee County community members.

In a nine-page-long letter sent to an attorney for the School Board on Friday, the clinic members asked the Board to live stream its meetings, provide video captioning of uploaded videos of meetings, and provide access for community members who wish to attend meetings virtually.

They also ask the Board to post “adequate notice” of special meetings and “adequate meeting minutes” of those sessions.

The team also calls on the Board to unblock community members excluded from the Board’s social media accounts and to “instruct officials” of the schools to take steps to guarantee that punitive action is not taken in response to “protected expression.”

The letter, signed by Clinic Fellow Samantha Hamilton and second year law students Davis R. Wright and Mark Bailey, ask for the policy changes to avoid the need for “further legal action” or involvement of the Office of the State Attorney General.

The letter gives attorney Phil Hartley until Feb. 22 to respond.

Specific Claim

Hamilton, Wright and Bailey told Hartley they are making their request on behalf of Dr. John Phillips, the parent of students in Oconee County Schools, and Kendra Kline, “a local education and disability rights advocate.”

The team say Phillips and Kline “are both concerned by the lack of transparency on the part of the Oconee County School Board of Education (“the Board”) in failing to provide meaningful access to its public meetings under the First Amendment and Georgia’s Open Meetings Act (OMA).”

“Specifically, we write to address the Board’s lack of a live stream feed to its meetings and failure to adequately post notice and meeting minutes of Special Sessions in accordance with the OMA,” the letter states.

“We also write to address the Board’s and/or OCS officials’ retaliatory actions committed in violation of the First Amendment,” the team states.

“OCS has blocked members of the community from the designated or limited public forum located on the OCS Twitter page (@OconeeCoSchools), preventing them from petitioning their government officials for redress of grievances,” the letter states.

“Lastly, OCS officials have also taken retaliatory measures against teachers who spoke out against the Board’s COVID-19 plans. Such actions chill protected speech and may give rise to a retaliation claim against OCS and/or the Board,” the letter continues.

Saturday Announcement

The Clinic went public with its action via a Twitter post late on Saturday morning.

Exhibit With Letter

“We sent a letter to the Oconee County School Board urging it to increase public access to its meetings under the Open Meetings Act,” the tweet states. “We also urge the Board to unblock community members on social media in accordance with the First Amendment, among other demands.”

I obtained a copy of the nine-page letter from Phillips.

In addition to the letters, the clinic team sent Hartley 36 additional pages of exhibits.

Included are email messages between school officials and Ms. Kline regarding access, pictures of the meeting room for Board meetings, copies of minutes of meetings, and a notice blocking someone from using following and viewing tweets at @oconeeCoSchools.

The letter makes reference to my reporting about the School Board decision not to continue live streaming, but I have had no contact with the legal team at the First Amendment Clinic or involvement in the Feb. 5 letter to Hartley.

Letter From Hartley

One of the included exhibits in the Feb. 5 letter is a Dec. 10, 2020, letter from Hartley in which he says that his firm, Harben, Hartley and Hawkins LLP of Gainesville, represents the Board of Education and in that capacity he is responding to a Dec. 3, 2020, letter from Hamilton.

Hartley said the request for live streaming meetings “will be considered by the School District” but “there is no requirement in Georgia law that such meetings be streamed.”

The Board did live stream its meeting last spring but discontinued that action, and Hartley said, the law does not require, “to the extent that such meeting were streamed for a short period of time during the pandemic emergency, that they continue to be streamed.”

“The Oconee County School District is dedicated to following all requirements of the law,” Hartley wrote, “but does not see a need to make dramatic changes to its meeting protocol without evidence that members of the public who wish to attend are being denied that opportunity.”

Hartley did not comment on the other issues raised by the clinic team in the Feb. 5 letter, some of which seem to have taken place after Dec. 10.

Blocking Account, Claims of Retaliation

In the Feb. 5 letter, Hamilton, Wright, and Bailey wrote that those who had been blocked from the Oconee County Schools Twitter account included “Kline and the community group Safety First, a coalition of parents and community members concerned about OCS’s handling of COVID-19 safety measures.”

Ms. Kline was blocked after posting a critical Tweet regarding an award that Superintendent Jason Branch received, tagging the Twitter accounts belonging to OCS, Superintendent Branch, and the Georgia School Public Relations Association, the letter states.

Safety First was blocked after posting multiple critical Tweets concerning OCS’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Hamilton, Wright, and Bailey.

“By excluding Ms. Kline and Safety First from being able to view and participate in the interactive spaces on the Board’s Twitter account after they criticized OCS and its superintendent,” the team wrote, “the Board is retaliating against Ms. Kline and Safety First for their viewpoint as well as engaging in prior restraint of their future speech on the Twitter account.”

The letter also claims that retaliation was taken against employees of Oconee County School who signed a petition asking for a mask mandate and adoption of a hybrid learning model.

“It has come to our attention that several staff members employed by OCS have been called to their principal’s office to answer for their decision to sign a petition,” Hamilton and her colleagues wrote.

“Anonymous sources report being called into a meeting with an OCS official and asked why they signed the petition,” the letter asserts. “They report being told that their actions tarnish the school’s reputation.

“Such bald intimidation tactics chill speech and veer dangerously close to constituting a retaliation claim,” according to the Feb. 5 letter. “The First Amendment prohibits government officials from retaliating against individuals for speaking out.”

The petition was discussed at the very end of the very end of a lengthy session of the Board on Jan. 11.


Lee Becker said...

If you wish to leave a comment, please either use a google address that contains your real name or type your real name at the end of your comment.

MP Pat said...

Good luck getting the Attorney General's office to do anything about Open Meetings and/or Open Records. It is rare that you can even get them to respond.

MP Patrick

Chuck Rosenberger said...

This is a major and necessary confrontation with the B.O.E. The UGA law clinic is taking appropriate action. Does the school board run Oconee Co., or the B.O.C. or the Chamber of Commerce? They need to have their meetings open and accessible to all citizens. What do they have to hide? Chuck Rosenberger

Unknown said...

I hope this helps prompts the school board to be more open.

Jeanne Barsanti