HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - News photographers are allowed to record video of a school board meeting. Why was a citizen asked to leave Thursday night when she was doing the same thing? WHNT News 19 is Taking Action to get answers from those involved in the incident as well as school board members who sat nearby and watched.
Video posted online by Huntsville United shows security employees escorting a woman out of the board meeting. Eddgra Fallin was recording video of the Citizen Comments portion. Huntsville City Schools broadcasts meetings on ETV and online, but the cameras are turned off before the Citizen Comments portion, which happen at the end of each meeting.
Fallin was recording video of a representative of the Von Braun Astronomical Society talking about the group's educational outreach. He spoke for about 35 seconds before security personnel and school system spokesperson Keith Ward approached Fallin.
This is the text of the exchange:
“We can’t have people standing up to film," said Ward. "If you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to sit down.” [The next few words are difficult to distinguish.] "That’s because I wanted to…” Fallin said.
It appears two security personnel approached with Ward. The total exchange between him and her lasts for six seconds before the security guards step in and begin to speak in loud voices, causing board members to halt Burleson's comments.
"Let's have her leave," a security person said.
"Why do I have to leave?" Fallin said quietly.
"Let's just go," he replied.
"Well, I will sit down and tape then," Fallin replied.
"If you do not leave, ma'am, you're subject to be arrested," a police officer said.
"You're going to arrest me for not leaving a public meeting when I'm not doing anything wrong?" she asked. "Ma'am, you were asked to leave, by officials."
"I asked Mr. Burleson if he minded me taping, and he said he did not mind. Is that correct Mr. Burleson?" Burleson looked over, but didn't say anything in response.
Another police officer approaches Fallin. "I just cannot believe this is the United States of America," she said.
"That's always been our policy," said Keith Ward, the school system's spokesperson.
"That you can't stand up and tape?" Fallin asked.
"Yeah, because then you'd have everybody ... everyone could stand up and tape," he replied.
Another Huntsville police officer then approaches Fallin.
"Can I ask you what law I'm breaking?" she asked as she was led out of the meeting.
"You can't stand ... everyone can't stand," Ward said. "We can't let everybody stand ... and then no one would be able to see, you'd be blocking people -- it's easy to understand. You can tape, you just do it from your seat."
"I said I would tape from my seat," Fallin replied. "So can I stay and at least make the comments that I signed up say?"
"No, let's go," a security officer replied.
Fallin was then escorted out. "I'm going to be contacting my attorney first thing in the morning, and the American Civil Liberties Union."
Pam Hill, a candidate for Huntsville Board of Education District 5, also walked out of the meeting with Fallin.
What does Fallin have to say?
Fallin spoke with WHNT News 19, saying her civil rights were violated that night. She is disappointed the police officers "allowed it to happen," and added that she feels humiliated by the encounter.
We asked Fallin why she was standing, and she said it was to get a better view. She claims she saw several others standing in the aisles during the presentations earlier at the meeting, and believes she was asked to leave in retaliation for being outspoken about Huntsville City Schools.
We also asked her if she felt she was, in fact, a disruption.
"Why would I disrupt the school board meeting? Why?" she asked in response. "What reason would I have to do that? I certainly know what the law is. And I know what the policy is."
She said it was school staff, including spokesman Keith Ward, who started the disruption.
"I wasn't the one that was being disruptive. I was silently recording the speaker."
Eddgra told WHNT News 19, she plans to continue attending and recording Huntsville City Schools Board of Education meetings.
Was this legal?
Section 36-25A-6 of Alabama's Open Meetings Act states the following:
"A meeting of a governmental body, except while in executive session, may be openly recorded by any person in attendance by means of a tape recorder or any other means of sonic, photographic, or video reproduction provided the recording does not disrupt the conduct of the meeting. The governmental body may adopt reasonable rules for the implementation of this section."
WHNT News 19 spoke with School Board President Laurie McCaulley, who said Fallin wasn't escorted out because she was recording video. "The person right behind her -- she was allowed to stay in her seat and record it," McCaulley said.
McCaulley, who represents District 1, said Fallin was causing a disruption.
"Keith [Ward] did tell her she could record if she would sit down. She was asked to leave because she failed to comply with the request of school security personnel."
McCaulley said the board has asked Ward to try to pull up the entire incident on another camera view from within the board meeting room. If it is available, they'll release it, and we'll post it.
Why doesn't ETV broadcast Citizen Comments?
This has been a point of contention over the past year. Some are critical of the school board, saying they only want to broadcast good news and not public comments, which could include critical or negative feedback from parents.
McCaulley said there are two reasons why ETV's cameras turn off. First, Citizen Comments are not part of the actual board meeting.
"The President hits the gavel, and says 'all the board's business has been concluded.' Citizen comments follow at that time, but it's not during the actual board meeting. It is a listening opportunity. The board needs time to research the item the person has brought before us."
McCaulley said there is another reason -- one that's often missed, but very important.
"Parents often bring up personal issues about their children, including bullying. That's not something the whole city needs to hear," said McCaulley. "Citizen comments give parents a chance to address the board, but it's also the board's responsibility to protect the children. It's not that we're trying to be mean. It's not that we're trying to be secretive. But we as a board are trying to protect the identities of children parents may speak about."
"One parent came up [and showed] a picture of his son with a bruised eye. Someone recorded video of it. Several times, it's incidents where they're referencing their own particular child, and bullying or psychological counseling."
Will citizens be allowed to record video during future meetings and citizen comments?
"Yes. As long as they are sitting down," McCaulley said. The person right behind Mrs. Fallin was allowed to stay in her seat and record."
Additional board member responds
Elisa Ferrell, who represents District 3 on the Huntsville Board of Education, also provided these answers to our questions.
Q: This was part of a public meeting where news cameras are allowed, by law, to record it. News cameras are allowed for the entire duration. Why was this citizen not allowed to record the citizen comments, which are part of the meeting?
A: "There is no deliberation, no vote, no minutes, during citizen comments; only listening. It is not a board meeting. Citizen comments have tremendous value for board members, because we receive concerns from parents, community members and staff, as a group. Sometimes there are problems to be solved, and sometimes there are misconceptions to be explained. We do allow individuals, not just the media, to record. We don't allow people to block the egress or ingress in the aisles, or record people at the podium who do not wish to be recorded. The only requirements we have of them is that they be citizens of Huntsville and that the person they are recording is willing to be recorded. Last night Ms. Fallin said the speaker said she could record him. After the incident took place, he did not corroborate her statement."
Q: Did you feel a need to stand up and stop her from being escorted out?
A: "No I did not feel the need to stand up and stop her from being escorted out. She was being treated respectfully and fairly. Ms. Fallin has a history of disrupting meetings on several occasions... Last night Ms. Fallin was told she could record several times, but had to remain seated while doing so. She made the choice to block the aisle, she made the choice to move closer towards the man who was speaking while she was recording. she made the choice to remain standing after being asked to find a seat multiple times by Keith Ward, HCS Security and ultimately the HPD. Ms. Fallin made many choices last night, and her choices had resulting consequences."
Q: Some people believe if ETV’s cameras would broadcast citizen comments at the end of the meeting, this wouldn’t have happened. Do you believe
ETV cameras should broadcast citizen comments? Will you recommend this change for the next school board meeting and future meetings?
A: "Our first priority is to the education and safety of the students, and that includes protecting their privacy. In the past when we have had live broadcasts of citizen comments, some parents have told intimate details about their children; their academic struggles, social struggles, grades, reprimands - all done in violation of FERPA law. Parents have also come up and complained about other people's children, giving details of their behavior and calling them by name; another violation of FERPA law. The previous board tried to stop those statements and instructed speakers to refrain from mentioning specific situations, children’s names and other identifiers, but speakers would go on anyway. So, in answer to your question, no, I don't think we should have cameras running for citizen comments. We would never try to control what someone says in citizen comments, so we can’t control whether or not they will violate FERPA and compromise a child’s privacy. Again, our first priority is to the children and in this instance that means protecting their privacy. Second, I believe we may be the only system in the state that live broadcasts our meetings on television. That would mean there are another 136 or so school systems in Alabama, and probably thousands of others across the country, who aren't broadcasting their citizen comments either. We are not unique in this regard. The bigger story is the level of disrespect showed the gentleman from the Von Braun Astronomical Society who was there to promote science education for our children, and how the goodwill of one person to help the children of Huntsville is being completely overshadowed by the behavior of another."