A bad lesson in democracy from Board of Education

The following appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and on suntimes.com on Sept. 14.  Curtis Lawrence is an associate professor of Journalism at Columbia College Chicago. Suzanne McBride is associate chair of the Journalism Department.

A bad lesson in democracy from Board of Education


As journalism professors at Columbia College Chicago, we often take students to government meetings. It’s their opportunity to see government in action and to report stories right alongside working journalists.

There’s always a lesson to be learned. Did you ask enough questions? Did you ask the right questions? How can this be explained more clearly?

But our students learned a different lesson a couple of weeks ago, one that challenged their assumption — and ours — about the basic right they as members of the public have to attend government meetings and to witness their taxpayer dollars at work.

Our story for the day was the Chicago Board of Education’s August meeting. The board has been covered for years by Columbia College students and many other journalists in training. And before last month, none of our students had trouble getting in.

Our students were first in line to attend one of the most newsworthy meetings of the year; the board was scheduled to vote on a $6.6 billion budget and hear from teachers, parents and community members, many of whom were still upset about an unprecedented number of school closings and another round of budget cuts.

That’s when we learned of a new policy that required anyone who plans to observe the meeting to register online ahead of time.

We questioned this; neither of us in our more than four decades of working as journalists here and in other states had encountered such a policy.

We persisted, pressing our case with CPS and board officials. Eventually, our students were given press passes and allowed into the meeting. But we saw others — none of whom wanted to be identified because they didn’t want to jeopardize their chances of getting into a future meeting — who were turned away.

As journalists and emissaries for the public, we are greatly troubled by a policy that limits and in some cases outright restricts access to any member of the public. We filed a complaint with the Illinois attorney general’s office because we believe CPS officials violated the state’s Open Meetings Act; we are still awaiting word on what, if any, action the state’s public access counselor will take.

But that shouldn’t stop the Chicago Board of Education from taking action to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

After WBEZ reporter Linda Lutton reported about our trouble getting into the meeting and other education activists commented on Twitter, the board appears to have revised its policy. Revised participation guidelines dated the day of the meeting do not require observers to register in advance and registration for speakers can be online, by telephone or in person at board headquarters.

This is a move in the right direction. But we remain concerned that speakers must register two business days before the meeting. And the guidelines make no mention of accommodations for people who simply want to observe — a basic right in a democratic society. So we fear our student journalists — or anyone else in the public wanting to watch his or her government at work — could again be turned away.

Open meetings should be open to all. That’s a lesson we’d like the Chicago Board of Education to learn.