Published: Wednesday, June 09, 2010
NORTHAMPTON – Assistant District Attorney Cynthia Pepyne said she expects to respond early next week to the chairmen of five area school committees who have asked whether participation in blogs and other online forums could violate the state Open Meeting Law.
The heads of the Shutesbury, Leverett, Pelham and Amherst school committees and the Amherst Regional School Committee sent a letter to Pepyne last month asking for guidance. Those communities comprise the Amherst-Pelham regional district.
“Given that an increasing number of public officials operate blogs dedicated to the work of the committee or board which they serve, specifically school committees in Western Massachusetts, it is our perception that the commonwealth has not yet clearly provided guidance about this emerging form of electronic communication,” the letter stated.
The chairs wanted a ruling before July 1, when oversight of the Open Meeting Law will be transferred from district attorneys to the state attorney general.
The law requires state and municipal boards to conduct their business in public, with limited exceptions.
The question is, under what circumstances are officials who blog improperly conducting public business.
The letter cites the blogs of two people who serve on the Amherst and Amherst Regional boards, Catherine A. Sanderson, who has been blogging since 2008 the year she was elected, and Richard B. Hood, who was elected in March.
William C. Newman, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts Western Massachusetts office, and Thomas Lesser, cooperating attorney, wrote to Pepyne expressing concerns about limiting open discussion.
“The analysis necessarily must begin with the premise that the Web sites and blogging at issue are constitutionally protected political speech deserving the highest level of legal protection,” their letter states.
They wrote that although the Open Meeting Law is designed to prevent secrecy in the deliberation of issues on which public policies are based, it is not meant “to prevent or restrict public officials from communicating” with constituents and others prior to a meeting.
On her blog, Sanderson posts descriptions of meetings, her concerns, links to news articles and to other posts. She also responds to questions and comments.
Hood discusses school-related events and committee issues and provides links to Web sites and documents, as well.
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.