DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Four eastern Iowa media organizations are joining a nonprofit media rights group in filing a lawsuit against the Bettendorf school board and other officials after they blocked journalists from covering a meeting about school violence that was attended by hundreds of people.
The lawsuit filed Monday by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, the Quad-City Times and television stations KWQC, WQAD and WHBF asks a state court judge to find the school district in violation of Iowa’s open meetings law and to issue an injunction prohibiting the school board from violating the statute in the future. The lawsuit also asks the court to fine members of the board who took part in the meeting held May 25 that was attended by as many as 300 people, the majority of the school board and Superintendent Michelle Morse.
The law allows courts to order damages of between $100 and $500 and in cases where it’s proven the officials present knowingly participated in a violation, and fines of $1,000 to $2,500 can be levied.
The meeting was held the day after an elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where 21 student and teachers were killed. It was held to address violence that has taken place at a middle school in the district and other safety issues, including mounting complaints from parents during the recently completed academic year about how school officials responded to reports of rowdy behavior that left some students and their parents fearful.
School employees posted at the doors prevented reporters and photographers from entering the meeting.
In a letter sent to Morse and school board president Rebecca Eastman a week after the meeting, the Iowa FOI Council and managers of the news companies expressed “profound disappointment” with Bettendorf officials’ decision to exclude journalists.
“The topic discussed on the evening of Wednesday, May 25, was one of the fundamental responsibilities of the Bettendorf Community School District — ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the district’s 4,700 students during each school day,” the letter stated.
Randy Evans, the executive director of the Iowa FOI Council, said the authors of Iowa’s open meetings law recognized the important work journalists do in informing the public about issues facing government and potential solutions. Journalists can’t serve that role when they can’t attend meetings, Evans said.
Morse, Eastman and the district’s lawyer did not immediately respond to messages.