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.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

School Committees seek Open Meeting Law ruling regarding online forums

The Republican
Published: Wednesday, June 09, 2010
Diane Lederman

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.


LarryK4 said...

Now that the turnover of power for the Open Meeting Law to the Attorney General has been delayed from July to November maybe this will not be such a waste of time--at least the guidance from the DA will half a shelf life of four or five months.

I kind of wish my friends at the Republican gave the ACLU sternly worded letter a tad more play and perhaps a piece of the headline, but this issue is so CLEARLY trumped by the First Amendment that I'm not worried in the least...

(Well, maybe just a little.)

Anonymous said...

With such a large number of the other town's committees being affiliated with UMass, if I weren't also affiliated with UMass, I would be asking the DA if there was any similar violation with three or more of them meeting in any fashion at UMass.

I think this whole thing is nothing more than an attempt to intimidate Catherine, I have dealt with their ilk at UMass and that is how UMass operates -- intimidate the dissenter into silence and if that doesn't work, accuse her of vague illegalities so as to silence her.

Throw in the random accusations of racism, sexism and homophobia -- I once was even once accused of clairvoyant bigotry, of racism and homophobia against someone whom I had never even met and hence didn't *know* the race or sexual orientation of....

Next they likely will be trying to say that she is "dangerous" in some way. This is how these people work, they are chillingly predictible. And they usually do break people and silence them, at least until they get drunk, and that is why the UM students act as they do.

So I would like to see someone (Larry, are you listening) should ask the DA to include three more questions in the response.

First, is the evil being done in the UM staff meetings worse than what Catherine could accomplish if she wanted to?

Second, is this attempt to muzzle Catherine a conspiracy to violate her civil rights? Something that the DA should investigate? (And these various petitions from different communities aren't being coordinated? Isn't that called a "conspiracy" in law?

Third, she is a "tenured professor at an accredited college." Like journalists who meet certain criteria (and this is the big issue with the blogger and Apple), there are certain special rights known as "academic freedom." And does her right of "academic freedom" trump the public meeting law when applied to her professional communications?

The issue is this: Folks want to censor Catherine. And the folks who want to censor Catherine have far more exposure to violating the law they are cudgeling her with than she does. And Larry, you need to call them on it. Take every name and run it through the UM directory -- and when you see that they all are Planet UM folk, then, you will think.....

Anonymous said...

I continue to find all of this so interesting.

So, when the Amherst SC hires a lawyer for $3,000 to ask some questons and get advice regarding Union 26 that is perfectly ok. Hey, its always good to have more information to help guide us..right?

But, let someone else ask for a FREE advisoy opinion so that everyone across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a clear understanding of the rules of the road in terms of blogs and all of a sudden, information to guide us is a BAD BAD thing.

Lots of thin-skinned folks around here. They can dish it out but can't take it.

Ed said...

ask for a FREE advisoy opinion so that everyone across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a clear understanding of the rules of the road

I would have no problem with someone asking this question in general. My understanding is that they are alleging that a specific person is in violation of the law and requeting her to be prosecuted. That is, umm, a little bit different.

Officer, can you tell me how old you have to be to buy beer in this state?

Officer, that person over there is underaged and you see the case of beer he his loading into his car?