I was banned — City Beat March 2010

CITY BEAT by Bill DennisI suppose I have no choice but to comment on what happened to me last month’s at Peoria School District 150 headquarters.

I was banned.

Or more accurately, I was prevented from attending a press conference.

Only it wasn’t a press conference. It might have been a board meeting.

And if it was, it was either a legally closed meeting or it was an illegally closed meeting. But if it was closed, there were all sorts of reporters there.

Except me. Because I wasn’t a “media partner.”

Confused? So am I. More than usual, I mean.

I had received word that new District 150 Superintendent Grenita Lathan was going to be meeting the press at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 16 at District headquarters. Being a citizen journalist, I can only go to these sorts of things on my day off, and it happened to be one.

So I got in my car and schlepped up to Wisconsin Avenue. I followed a WEEK/WHOI reporter and photographer through the door and up to the front desk. After they signed in (I listened to the receptionist gush over Ashley McNamee and I took my turn and signed in and grabbed a name badge. The receptionist asked what press I was with and I told her: “Peoria Pundit. You know, it’s one on those blogs.” I’m afraid this confused the lady, so she called over district spokesperson Stacey Shangraw.

(As you read this, remember that Shangraw was completely friendly and professional at all times).

Shangraw politely informed me that the meeting was not an open meeting, so they didn’t have to let me in. And the only people they wanted to attend were members of the professional press. I replied that Peoria Pundit DOES make money (I didn’t tell her how little). She countered that the only people invited were people from, and this is an exact quote: “the district’s media partners.”

I asked her what made these other reporters “media partners” and who made the decision, she or the board. She just repeated her original reply: That I am not a professional reporter and only media partners could attend and it’s not open to the public. And they didn’t HAVE to let me in.

And she was right. There’s nothing in the Constitution that says which members of the press have the right to attend events that are NOT open to the public and that aren’t covered by the Open Meetings Act.

But that says nothing about the wisdom of banning from this meet and greet a citizen journalist who will write tens is not hundreds of thousands of words about Grenita Lathan in the coming years. Were I to be unprofessional about it, I’d suggest that there’s going to be be some childish reaction to be enacted on the pages of my blog or here in the Community Word.

My inconvenience was minor. It freed up an hour of my day for other things. Shangraw was no doubt following orders. And it would be disingenuous of me to not mention that I’ve written some harsh criticism of some of the board members and most of the administrators.

But it’s bad news for my readers, who might have liked to know what I thought of Lathan and what the answers to me questions would be. Honestly, I’ve heard good things about her.

Ironic, isn’t it? Citizen journalists aren’t real reporters because we don’t do exactly what full-time reporters do. And this is an excuse to ban one of us from a press event.

I doubt this is some massive conspiracy. It’s probably just a knee-jerk reaction to some heathen citizen showing up demanding to be treated like the 1st Amendment applies to someone without a press pass.

Later in the day, I took a call from Shangraw and board member Laura Petelle. Lathan didn’t really do a lot of one-on-one time with the journalists in attendance. So, I didn’t miss much. She did read a statement, and I posted a clip of the statement later.

Shangraw and Petelle told me I was denied entry because I didn’t fit the definition of the press, according to the policy that is in effect for this sort of thing. This policy was created before the advent of blogs, citizen journalism and do-it-yourself electronic media. Petelle and the rest of the board are going to look at changing the policy to reflect the changing realist of exactly who is the media.

One thing that MAY happen is a form of credentials that could be given serious citizen journalists. I consider a journalist to be anyone who performs an act of journalism, regardless of the medium and regardless of whether they are paid by a third party or not. But I do understand the need of the district to control the number of people claiming to be citizen journalists to attend by invitation events. There are no doubt people who would claim to be journalists just to attend to disrupt events.

We had a nice conversation. My feelings aren’t hurt (I was a little miffed at first, but I was also amused a bit too). I am satisfied that there will be some good long-term results out of this minor event.

But then the public got involved. It turned out that at least four members of the school board attended the meeting. With that many members attending, it met one definition of a meeting, which means the public needed to be informed in advance and allowed to attend. And then if they wanted to close it, it had to be closed for a reason allowable by the Open Meetings Act.

But the trouble is another part of that definition is whether public business was discussed. Certainly district business was discussed. But did board members discuss business with each other. Apparently, board members mingled with the press and answered questions, but otherwise didn’t discuss anything with each other.

I declined to file a request for a review. I’m not sure what such a review would accomplish. What decision would I be seeking to overturn, Lathan’s hiring as superintendent? All they would do would be to re-affirm her hiring with a second vote. I have no interest in embarrassing the board, although whoever failed to warn them against showing up together at an event where district business would be discussed ought to be embarrassed.

I consider it a learning moment. Next time, I’ll just say I’m with the Community Word.

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