Oconee County Schools Restrict Access and Silence Dissent

Oconee County School District

Ever since the Oconee County School District released its school reopening plan in July 2020, community members have been worried about insufficient pandemic safety protocols in schools, pleading for the administration to implement a mask mandate. But to express these concerns at the OCSD Board’s monthly meetings, attendees must gather in a room both too small to socially distance and where attendees are not required to wear masks. 

Students, parents and concerned community members have asked the Oconee County school board to live-stream its meetings so they can safely engage with their local officials. Yet OCSD has repeatedly refused, responding that “everyone has had to make individual decisions about what activities, meetings or gatherings they attend and what mitigation measures they take.” This puts community members in a catch-22: Either you do not participate in local school governance, or you place yourself and your loved ones at risk of exposure to COVID-19. In the digital age, when remote communication is easier than ever before, why has the OCSD board refused to live-stream its meetings and dismissed its community’s wholly legitimate concerns during a global health crisis?

The public’s right to access their government and petition for grievances is not a right of convenience. It is a constitutional freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. 

Community members first reached out to the UGA Law School’s First Amendment Clinic because, since June 2020, they had been denied safe, meaningful access to OCSD board meetings. After the clinic wrote to the board, it began uploading recordings of its meetings the day after the meeting. But, to date, the board has still refused to live-stream or allow virtual public comment, despite having shown the technological capability to do so in the early days of the pandemic.  

This is not a debate on personal preferences about pandemic safety. This is about providing community members with government transparency consistent with the spirit of the Georgia Open Meetings Act. This is also about the First Amendment right of access, which protects the public’s ability to speak, observe and receive information, all relating to government affairs.

As the OCSD board is quick to point out, the GOMA does not mandate that the board live-stream its meetings when the public may attend in-person. However, in a global pandemic where non-socially-distanced, indoor group gatherings entail a health and safety risk, live-streaming is the only way to make government access meaningful. The public should not have to choose, as OCSD counsel suggests, between participation in local school board meetings and health. Indeed, because of this very dilemma, the OCSD board chair himself remotely attended every meeting from June 2020 to March 2021. If the board chair can attend and participate remotely, why not members of the public? 

With the increasing availability of the COVID vaccine, hopefully it will soon be safer to be in a small, crowded room with people not wearing masks. But the board’s refusal to live-stream begs the question: If the board will not make basic accommodations for its community during the height of a once-in-a-century global pandemic, what will happen when only a single student or parent needs an access accommodation in the future? OCSD’s attitude should be of concern to anyone who believes in open government, as this approach to public governance poses concerns that extend beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

While refusing to live-stream or allow virtual public comment at its Board meetings, OCSD has also simultaneously censored its critics. OCSD runs a Twitter account where it publishes official announcements about school operations and policy, and where members of the public are allowed to tweet and comment, enabling town hall-style dialogue. In 2020, OCSD blocked both an individual who criticized the school superintendent and a community group called Safety First, which has advocated for more COVID protection measures in schools. By preventing these users from both accessing the important information on the account and participating in discussion about matters of public concern simply because they expressed a critical perspective, OCSD is discriminating based on viewpoint. The First Amendment does not permit a government entity to pick winners and losers in this manner where the government has created a public forum for speech.  

Some of the most famous politicians in the United States have faced repercussions for blocking those they disagree with from their social media accounts, including congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Marjorie Taylor Greene and former President Trump. The First Amendment prevents politicians from blocking their dissenters, and, likewise, OCSD lacks the constitutional authority to block community criticism. The First Amendment Clinic has therefore called on OCSD to unblock the censored community member and the Safety First group from its Twitter account and to establish clearly published, viewpoint-neutral rules for its account going forward.

Free speech, the right to petition and transparency are bedrock principles of democratic governance. OCSD disrespects these principles when they deny meaningful access to its Board meetings and block their critics from their public forum Twitter account. OCSD owes its community better.

Authors Mark Bailey, Taran Harmon-Walker, Michael Sloman and Davis M. Wright are law students in the University of Georgia School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic. The clinic defends and advances freedoms of speech, press, assembly and petition through direct client representation and advocacy and provides law students with real-world practice experience to become leaders on First Amendment issues.