A&A: Right to Videotape School Board Meetings

Right to Videotape School Board Meetings

Q: Yesterday, I videotaped a School District Board Meeting and I was under the understanding that citizens are allowed to videotape as specified under the Government Code Section 54954.3, the Brown Act.

After the meeting, I was approached by two district personnel, one of them being the district superintendent. Both of them told me I could not videotape the meeting. The superintendent specifically said that her and the School Board members had decided that their meetings would never be taped.

This school district has historically violated the rights of English Language Learners and children with disabilities and their parents. Currently, 75% of the students are Latino and it is a hardship for many of the parents to attend school board meetings because usually closed sessions do not end until 8/9 pm and public transportation stops running at 10 pm.

We wish to continue videotaping the sessions in order to have proof of the constant violations by this school board. The tape last night shows a board member stating that he is going to author a resolution to teach the bible in School District. No one, including the Superintendent or Board Chair, noted that religion cannot be taught in public schools.

A: You are correct.  The school district does not have the right to prohibit recording of its meetings absent a finding that such recording disrupts its proceedings.  Government Code section 54953.5 provides that “any person attending an open and public meeting… shall have the right to record the proceedings with an audio or video tape recorder or a still motion picture camera in the absence of a reasonable finding … that the recording cannot continue without noise, illumination, or obstruction of view that constitutes, or would constitute, a persistent disruption of the proceedings.”

Hopefully, referring the board to this provision of the Brown Act will prevent any future problems.  (The text of the Brown Act is available at http://www.cfac.org/Law/BrownAct/Text/ba_text.html.)

If the board refuses to comply with the Brown Act, the Act provides the following remedies: (1) to demand that the school district cure and correct the violation, and if they do not then sue to have the action taken at an illegal meeting set aside; or (2) simply sue to have a court declare that the school district violated the Brown Act and enjoin it from doing so in the future.  See Government Code sections 54960, 54960.1.

If you take the former course, there are some very short deadlines and technical requirements you must meet.

(a)        Notice and a demand to “cure and correct” the violation must be given, in writing, within 90 days from the date the action was taken. (30 days if the basis for the notice is that the action was not on an agenda or not adequately described).
(b)        The local agency has 30 days to take action.
(c)        If the local agency responds and refuses to correct the problem or does nothing, the challenger has 15 days to initiate court proceedings to nullify the action.

However, it sounds like you are not seeking to void a specific action taken at a meeting, but to make sure that the public is not prohibited from recording meetings in the future.  Given this, the second option would probably be more appropriate — sue to have a court declare that the district has violated the Act and enjoin it from doing so in the future.

Unfortunately, although the Brown Act provides for an award of costs and fees to prevailing plaintiffs, such award is discretionary (not mandatory).  Thus, before initiating litigation to enforce your rights under the Brown Act, it probably makes sense to contact the district again to see if you can resolve this issue without resorting to the judicial process.