The Douglas County School District on Wednesday lifted its order prohibiting journalist Brian Malone from coming onto district property to record school board meetings, after the American Civil Liberties Union intervened on Malone’s behalf.
Malone was ejected from a school board meeting Aug. 7 after he stepped outside a newly-created taping area for journalists and declined requests to move back inside. He was cited for disrupting a lawful assembly and prohibited from stepping foot on any district property.
The district later amended the order to allow Malone, a Dougco parent, to go to his daughters’ schools. But officials prohibited him from “using any device to record any audio or video” at those schools or any district property without the prior approval of administrator Mark Knapp. And they said he was supposed to petition for that approval five days in advance.
Malone hired two attorneys who, working with the ACLU, sent a letter Monday to Dougco officials demanding the district lift its orders:
Mr. Malone fully intends to continue to exercise his constitutionally-protected right to attend public meetings of the School Board, and to videotape and record those meetings, on the same legal footing as any other member of the public or press.
Accordingly, we hereby demand that DCSD immediately withdraw the directives prohibiting Mr. Malone from attending any future School Board meeting, or the meeting of any other local public body conducted on DCSD grounds. We also demand that DCSD immediately withdraw the further directive that requires Mr. Malone (unlike any other member of the public or press) to submit a petition five business days in advance of any such public meeting and receive prior approval before engaging in audio or video recording of such meetings.
In addition, the letter stated:
Please respond with an affirmative statement that DCSD has lifted these two unconstitutional restrictions on Mr. Malone’s rights as a member of the press, no later than close of business on Tuesday, August 14, 2012. If we do not receive such written confirmation from you by that time, we intend to seek judicial relief from the unconstitutional restrictions the District has placed upon Mr. Malone.
Wednesday, the ACLU sent out a press release stating the prohibitions against Mr. Malone had been lifted. Douglas County spokesman Randy Barber confirmed that and said Malone had agreed to stay inside the taping area.
Barber released a letter sent from the district to Malone’s attorneys, along with a statement from Rob Ross, the district’s legal counsel:
“After Mr. Malone’s ACLU-paid lawyer conceded to us that Mr. Malone will abide by the district’s rules for tripod mounted cameras and not disrupt any more board meetings, the district lifted its order banning him from district property,” Ross said. “We also made it clear that if Mr. Malone again disrupts a board meeting, the district will again have him removed and take any further action necessary.”
Before the Aug. 7 meeting, journalists and their cameras were allowed to move freely around the board room, with many choosing to set up so their cameras faced public speakers. The new taped area requires them to video from the side. Malone, at the Aug. 7 meeting, moved his camera to a spot he had previously used to capture speakers’ faces.
“Our goal is to conduct board meetings in a safe, professional manner,” Ross said in his statement. “Guidelines for camera equipment are in place to avoid disruptions, prevent obstructed views for citizens wishing to attend board meetings, and to maintain safety and security for all those in attendance. These guidelines accomplish the goal while still providing access for camera equipment.”
ACLU executive director Mark Silverstein clearly saw Wednesday’s action as a victory for Malone.
“We are encouraged by the school district’s prompt action that avoids a lawsuit and restores Mr. Malone’s constitutional right to attend meetings of public bodies under the same terms as any other journalist or member of the public,” he said. “Access to public meetings for the general public and the media in particular is an essential part of a democracy.”
Malone, whose company is Malone Media Group based in Castle Rock, said he is producing a documentary on the deep divide in the philosophies surrounding the district’s recent reform initiatives.
“I’m a free man once again,” he said.
Malone’s attorneys, Steve Zansberg and Chris Beall, are known for their work on behalf of the press. Zansberg represents media outlets, including the Denver Post, in their effort to unseal documents in the case of the Aurora theater shooting.