U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Outlets sue after media barred from attending Iowa school board meeting

Incident Details

Date of Incident
May 25, 2022
Bettendorf, Iowa
Case number
07821 EQCE135211
Case Status
Type of case

Denial of Access

Government agency or public official involved
Type of denial
Government event

A still frame of coverage by Iowa station WHBF-TV of a school board meeting in Bettendorf on May 25, 2022, which banned media from attending. The station, three other news outlets and a nonprofit later sued the school board in connection with the ban.

June 8, 2023 - Update

School board settles with news outlets, admits open meeting violation

Four news companies settled their suit against an Iowa school district on June 8, 2023, after suing it for blocking media access to a school board meeting.

Randy Evans of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which also joined the suit, confirmed to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that the Community School District of Bettendorf, Iowa, acknowledged violating the state’s open meetings law, promised to allow media access to future meetings concerning school policy and agreed to reimburse the plaintiffs $6,500 in attorneys fees.

The meeting at the center of the suit was held to discuss school violence in May 2022, a day after the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. School employees were stationed outside to prevent members of the press from entering the meeting, which was attended by more than 300 parents, and a sign was posted barring “recording, live streaming or media.”

News outlets Quad-City Times, KWQC-TV, WQAD-TV and WHBF-TV, along with the FOI Council, sued the Bettendorf school board and other officials in August 2022. They asked the court to fine the school board members for violating Iowa’s open meetings law and to prohibit media bans at similar meetings in the future.

“Our lawsuit was so unnecessary,” Evans said. “No reasonable person would assert that parents discussing with an elected policy-making board their concerns about school violence is not a fundamental school policy matter that must occur in public.” After the settlement, the suit was officially dismissed on June 26, 2023, according to the court docket.

The Quad-City Times reported that a separate complaint about the media ban was filed with the Iowa Public Information Board (by a Bettendorf parent, according to Evans). The board found insufficient evidence of a violation and dismissed that complaint in March 2023.

The news outlets and the Bettendorf School District did not comment when contacted by the Tracker.

May 25, 2022

Journalists from four news companies were blocked from attending a school board meeting in Bettendorf, Iowa, on May 25, 2022, according to a lawsuit the outlets filed against the school district.

The meeting — which was held the day after the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas — was about school violence and was attended by more than 300 parents.

KCRG News reported that school employees were stationed at the doors of the Quad-Cities Waterfront Convention Center to prevent members of the press from entering a meeting, including journalists from the Quad-City Times, KWQC-TV, WQAD-TV and WHBF-TV.

KQAD reporter Josh Lamberty posted to Facebook that he was outside the convention center but that he wasn’t being allowed to attend the meeting. Lamberty also shared a photo of a sign on the door which reads: “Out of respect for an open honest work session for our Middle School parents and staff, we ask for no recording, live streaming or media at tonight’s work session.”

The news outlets, joined by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, filed a lawsuit against the Bettendorf school board and other officials on Aug. 1.

The lawsuit asks the Scott County District Court to rule that the school district violated Iowa’s open meeting law, issue an injunction prohibiting such actions in the future and fine the school board members who took part in the meeting.

Iowa FOI Executive Director Randy Evans told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that while they weren’t eager to resort to pursuing a legal remedy, they couldn’t let the closed meeting go unchallenged.

“We don’t want government boards and councils in Iowa to believe that the open meetings law is something they only have to follow when it’s convenient,” Evans said. “Cutting journalists off is really cutting the information chain to citizens in two pieces.”

In a letter to the school board president and superintendent dated June 3, the media organizations and nonprofit expressed “profound disappointment” with the school officials’ decision to keep journalists out of the meeting.

“The topic discussed on the evening of Wednesday, May 25, was one of the fundamental responsibilities of the Bettendorf Community School District — ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the district’s 4,700 students during each school day,” the letter stated. “Barring both journalists and other interested people from the meeting on May 25 is a direct violation of the statute of the Iowa Legislature clearly articulated in the first paragraph of the open meetings law.”

Evans told the Tracker they did not receive a response from the school district.

When reached for comment, Bettendorf School District Director of Communications Celeste Miller said in a statement that school officials do not believe the outlets’ claims have any merit.

“The May 25 Work Session was to provide a forum for parents, staff and interested community members to come together to discuss with each other the District’s strengths, weaknesses, solutions, and barriers,” the statement reads. “The District has presented the information obtained at the Work Session to the School Board at its open meetings and will continue to do so.”

The news outlets did not respond to requests for comment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].