Although I really hate devoting more space to discussing my blog (as opposed to discussing actual education in Amherst), I thought the oped in today's Gazette by Michael DeChiara (Chair of the Shutesbury School Committee) merited a response -- since it clearly implies that my blog might perhaps not be "fair and legal." You can read his full piece at: http://www.gazettenet.com/2010/06/08/needed-rules-road-officials-blogs.
Michael raises 6 points that call into question my blog (and indeed all blogs) -- I'll list and quote those points (in bold), and then give my response (in italics).
First, he notes that "While a few public officials have created their own blogs (driving into the rotary), many others are waiting for legal guidance before participating. This creates a partial, unbalanced and potentially illegal forum for discussion and deliberation."
I'll just note here that no one has said it is illegal for a School Committee member to have a blog -- which I checked with the head of the MA School Committee Association two years ago when I started my blog. So, if he, or others, would like to start a blog, they should feel free to do so.
Second, he states that "If we presume that every public official has a right to free expression, it is unclear how to balance this right with the need to comply with Open Meeting Law. Let's assume that on a committee of five people, all the members have their own blog. Even if these blogs did not allow comments, each committee member would still be able to read the others' posts, thereby exchanging information among the committee members outside of a legal public meeting. Whether this is illegal deliberation is a valid question."
So, I have two responses here. First, I believe that learning other people's opinions is not the same as deliberating about those opinions. In fact, the point of a meeting is to have that deliberation in public, and that is precisely what occurs. Sometimes people's opinions (including my own) change as a result of that deliberation! Second, the point of the open meeting law is to make sure that people don't discuss issues in secret. Blogs are the opposite of secret -- so, people could know that whatever other SC members know about each other's opinions, they at least have that information!
Third, Michael writes "There is also a core concept in Open Meeting Law called "serial discussion," which is strictly forbidden. This occurs when official A talks to official B about an issue concerning their committee's business; then official B talks to official C. On a committee of five people, these three members constitute a quorum (they can vote and do committee business).
Their serial exchanges (A to B to C) result in deliberations outside of a public meeting. In the online world, if official A posts on a blog, official B comments on that post and official C simply reads what is posted (without anyone even knowing), this may be an online serial discussion. If so, it could be illegal."
If this is illegal, then so is the case that two School Committee members are quoted in the same article about a topic, and this article is then read by a third School Committee member. Similarly, it would be illegal for two School Committee members to post on anyone else's blog (e.g., a non-School Committee member, or a newspaper). It would also be illegal for two School Committee members to write a newspaper column, since if a third read their opinions, they would have committed this violation.
Fourth, he writes "If a public official allows comments on her or his blog, there is an assumption that all comments by others are visible. While private citizens who host blogs can determine whose comments may be accepted and seen by the public, there is no guidance for public officials? Is there an expectation that they are hosting a public discussion and therefore all comments must be visible to the public, similar to a "public comments" at physical meetings?"
At a public meeting, sometimes there is not enough time for all members of the public to talk, nor is there any obligation that equal time (or any time) be given to members who want to talk. A blog operates precisely the same way.
Fifth, and related, he writes, "At a public meeting, people who comment must identify themselves for the minutes. Is there a similar expectation that comments on blogs should be identified with real people's names?"
Although people are asked their names for the minutes, these names are not verified in any way, and are sometimes misrecorded in the minutes. Similarly, a blog could require people to give a name (as masslive does), but that doesn't mean it is a person's real name.
Finally, how about the content on a public official's blog? Is "reporting out" about past meetings qualitatively different than sharing opinions about topics for future deliberation by the committee? When does sharing information or opinions by a public official regarding an upcoming issue become influencing debate outside of a public meeting?
The ACLU speaks to this point very clearly (and based in already established law): "An elected official has the right to express his or her opinions and convictions prior to, and after, a scheduled open meeting. The Massachusetts appellate court decisions are clear that the Open Meeting Law does 'not require elected officials to maintain a vow of silence before a hearing on a hot subject." Indeed, elected School Committee Members, prior to a vote, may express their convictions on the precise public policy point that will come before the meeting." I don't think it gets a lot clearer than that.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.