U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Reporter, public barred from Illinois township board meeting

Incident Details

Date of Incident
February 13, 2024

Denial of Access

Government agency or public official involved
Type of denial
Government event

Lansing Journal Managing Editor Josh Bootsma and local residents were barred without explanation from a board of trustees meeting at Thornton Township headquarters, above, in South Holland, Illinois, on Feb. 13, 2024.

February 13, 2024

Josh Bootsma, the managing editor at The Lansing Journal, was prevented from attending a Thornton Township Board of Trustees meeting, along with members of the public, on Feb. 13, 2024, in apparent violation of Illinois’ Open Meetings Act.

He reported that upon arriving at the township headquarters, located in the suburban Chicago village of South Holland, they were directed into the basement of the building, though the meeting was being held in the upstairs boardroom.

Bootsma told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that an audio feed of the meeting was streaming from the speakers downstairs, but it was too faint to follow what was being said and lasted no longer than 30 seconds before cutting out entirely. He also noted that, while attendees were told someone would collect public comment, the meeting ended after just four minutes without anyone doing so.

Board meetings had previously been held in the larger downstairs room, which can comfortably fit more than 100 people, Bootsma explained. But after the last township supervisor died in 2021, Supervisor Tiffany Henyard has held meetings in an upstairs boardroom that can only seat 10 to 15 members of the public, he added.

“There are 17 municipalities represented by Thornton Township. So, if one person from each of those municipalities came to the meeting it would be challenging for all of them to have a seat, and that’s just the normal M.O. for the Henyard administration,” Bootsma said.

One of the township trustees, Christopher Gonzalez, told the Tracker that he was also informed he couldn't enter the boardroom until the Feb. 13 meeting was scheduled to begin. When he asked why, Gonzalez was told it was because other trustees were afraid he’d bring members of the press in with him.

“It was out of nowhere. I’ve given interviews to the media but never once have I tried to coordinate or march in with the media,” Gonzalez said. “I am asking questions and being vocal, so I’m viewed as an enemy.”

At the following board meeting on Feb. 27, Bootsma told the Tracker that he and members of the public were initially informed that they would again only be permitted to observe the meeting via a stream in the basement.

Shortly before the meeting was set to begin, a security guard informed Bootsma, other media and the two members of the public in attendance that they could go up to the main boardroom.

Gonzalez told the Tracker that there was a lot of chatter from the other trustees ahead of the announcement and that he heard someone say, “What’s the big deal, just let them in. We’re going to get in trouble and for what? She’s not here, nobody could ask her any questions anyways.”

Bootsma reported that Trustee Gerald “Jerry” Jones, who oversaw the meeting in Henyard’s absence, declined to comment about the decision to allow the press and public into the room and said he did not know why access was denied during the prior meeting.

Bootsma told the Tracker: “At this most recent meeting, on the video stream all we could see was empty chairs, so why are we being told that we can’t go up? It’s clearly not for overflow. There’s no good reason that I can see why this is happening.”

While members of the press have not previously been barred from public meetings, Bootsma said that Henyard has a “general hostility” toward the media and has repeatedly said that the media only covers negative stories. Bootsma noted that a reporter for the Journal was told she could not attend a Black History Month event on Feb. 24, for instance, because she had not signed a nondisclosure agreement before the event.

Neither Henyard nor Township Special Advisor Keith Freeman responded to requests for comment.

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