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.