Gavel, court, legal, judge, lawsuit

(The Center Square) – The Iowa Freedom of Information Council, Quad-City Times, KWQC, WQAD and WHBF on Monday sued Bettendorf Community School District and its board of directors in Scott County District Court.

They allege the district prevented journalists from covering a May 25 meeting at which parents stated concerns about violence in the district’s middle school, Quad-City Times reported. The meeting was the day after an elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

In the lawsuit filed Aug. 1, the plaintiffs asked Scott County District Court to find that the school district violated Iowa’s open meetings law and to fine school board members between $100 and $500 (inclusive) or $1,000 and $2,500 (inclusive), if the board members knowingly participated in the violation. They also want the court to order board members to refrain from any future violations of Iowa’s Open Meeting Law.

About 250 parents and a majority of school board members and Superintendent Michelle Morse attended the meeting, and school employees were stationed at the doors of the Waterfront Center to keep reporters and photographers from entering, according to Quad-City Times.

"Literally blocking journalists from a public meeting is unacceptable," Quad-City Times Executive Editor Matt Christensen said. "School board members were listening to public feedback meant to guide policy. On an issue as important as school safety, the public deserves to know."

Iowa FOI Council Executive Director Randy Evans provided The Center Square a letter that Evans, Christensen and the television stations’ news directors sent June 3 to Morse and school board president Rebecca Eastman.

“It would stretch believability to think that spending a couple of hours listening to the concerns of parents about the behavior of some Bettendorf Middle School students – including bullying and injuries suffered by students not otherwise involved in the incidents – does not fall within the meaning of deliberations on matters clearly within the scope of the Board of Education’s policy-making duties,” the media leaders said.

They asked the school leaders and their attorneys to cite Iowa laws if they believe there was a legal basis for keeping journalists from attending the May 25 meeting.

According to the lawsuit, the council did not receive a response to the letter.

Evans said Iowa’s open meetings law recognized the important work journalists do in informing the public about the issues and problems government faces and the potential solutions.

“What we know to be true is this: Members of the Bettendorf community have been alarmed by the increasing frequency and nature of the student misconduct at Bettendorf Middle School,” the letter said. “The authors of our Constitution and members of the Iowa Legislature who wrote the public meetings law more than 50 years ago recognized the important role journalists play in informing the public about the issues and problems, and potential solutions, being discussed by our governing bodies. But journalists cannot do this important work if officials block journalists from having access to meetings like the one on May 25.”

Iowa Chapter 21.1, which is part of Iowa law on governmental meetings transparency, says that the chapter’s purpose is to assure that the basis and rationale of governmental decisions and the decisions themselves are easily accessible to the people.

“Ambiguity in the construction or application of this chapter should be resolved in favor of openness,” the section said.

Bettendorf Community School District Director of Communications Celeste Miller could not be immediately reached for comment.