In a closed meeting on January 14th of this year, the Jersey City Board of Education ended its policy of broadcasting the public comments portion of its monthly meetings. Several concerned citizens have challenged the decision in court. Mayor Fulop has criticized the Board’s move, calling it a “step backward” for governmental transparency. We wholeheartedly agree. The Board of Education should reverse this decision. Back in March, Civic JC emailed Board President Sangeeta Ranade and asked for an explanation of the policy. According to Ms. Ranade, the rationale for the video-casting ban is threefold: First, in the past, videotaping and broadcasting public comments contributed to a “hostile environment” in which some parents were “booed and shouted down.” Second, the Board’s attorney felt that the Board might be liable in the event that a televised speaker made a defamatory statement. Third, according to Ms. Ranade, a majority of school districts in New Jersey also do not broadcast public comments.
We believe these arguments have no merit. The third argument is the easiest to dispose of. It is of no importance whatsoever what other boards do or don’t do in the state. The question should be this: Is the policy a good one? We think not. And what about rudeness and intimidation? Of course where it happens, it should be discouraged. But the Board’s solution throws the baby out with the bathwater; public comments often bring to light issues unknown to the Board and public at large. For instance, at a meeting earlier this year, we heard about unheated classrooms, insufficient teacher prep time and unsafe school buses.
Those who couldn’t attend the meeting should have had the opportunity to hear these important comments too. But because of the Board’s policy, they didn’t. If the Board is concerned with rudeness and intimidation, it should enforce its own rules on decorum. Turning off the cameras and sending the message that public comments are less important than the views of the Board is not only an insult and disservice to the public but a hindrance to governmental transparency. Finally, at the March 20th Board meeting, we asked that the Board’s attorney cite the legal authority for its fear of lawsuits based on defamation. Attorney Ramon Rivera was unable to provide one. Instead he spoke of his “concern” about the “risk” of litigation. This is not the kind of legal argument that would hold up in court. In addition, our follow-up email to Ms. Ranade requesting such authority went unanswered. Thus, we can only conclude that such legal authority does not exist and that the argument is specious. The public comments of concerned citizens are a vital part of every Board meeting, raising important issue that everyone, including those at home, should hear. By its action, the Board has demoted these comments to second-class status. The Board should reinstate the broadcasting of public comments effective immediately.
President, Civic JC