Times sure have changed since the first public meeting convened in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol in Iowa City.
Many of the dozen or so attendees at the Iowa Public Information Board meeting there on Thursday were messing around with some electronic devices.
There were tablets and laptops; the guy in front of me was checking Facebook on his smartphone.
This technology is more than a distraction, it’s pushing at the boundaries of Iowa Open Meeting Law first drafted back in 1978.
The law requires that, unless specifically exempted, public agencies must do the public’s business in full public view. Any meetings, documents, notes and activities must be open or made available upon request.
“The statute was drafted with something in mind called a telephone. Maybe you’ve heard of it,” said University of Iowa law professor Arthur Bonfield at a symposium later Thursday. He should know. He was one of the principal authors.
The way technology is challenging the spirit and letter of that law was a common theme at that day’s meeting and other free press and open government events.
Part of the Public Information Board’s charge is to identify sections of the law that need updating and clarification. Technology is a biggie.
A recent Wisconsin State Journal investigation revealed more than 7,500 emails and text messages sent and received by Madison City Council members during open meetings between April 2010 and 2011. A review of those messages did not uncover any apparent violations of that state’s sunshine laws, but it raises some important questions.
If an elected body is in an email chain, does it constitute a quorum? Is a Facebook page a public record? A Twitter feed? What about text messages? It’s open to interpretation.
“They are all — the emails, the tweets, Facebook, when used for state or government business — clearly covered by the statute,” Bonfield said. But journalists attending the seminar said that in their experience, not every records custodian agrees.
“We say it’s public information but how do we get the information,” said Daily Iowan editor Kristen East, a symposium panelist. “As quickly as public officials can post something on Twitter, they can delete it.”
These are important questions for the board to consider and clarify in the law.
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