Media cry foul over new rules for Breckenridge School District meetings
FARGO -- On the heels of a school board meeting abruptly adjourned after a television microphone spat, the Breckenridge district announced a new set of rules for media attendance.
The rules, interim Superintendent Warren Schmidt said, seek to avert confusion, not to inconvenience reporters.
But Fargo-Moorhead television news directors expressed concern about the rules. They said the rules - from banning microphones on the desk at which board members are seated to requiring the media to give heads-up they'll attend open meetings - will interfere with their work and go against the spirit of the state's open meetings law.
"I've never seen anything like this, and I'm a guy who's covered hundreds and hundreds of school board meetings," said Jim Shaw, a news director at KVRR-TV, Fargo's Fox affiliate.
At last month's Breckenridge board meeting, Schmidt objected when a WDAY-TV reporter tried to set a microphone on the desk in front of him and the board. When she and her cameraman insisted that was the only way to collect good-quality audio, the board adjourned the meeting at Schmidt's urging.
WDAY-TV is owned by Forum Communications Co., which also owns The Forum.
On Tuesday, Schmidt explained that microphones are a distraction: "I have a very inexperienced board, and they are very uncomfortable if you put a microphone in front of them."
The new rules say no recording equipment will be set on the table in front of the board, and all cameras will be located in the back of the room. Media also will have to provide notice of attendance three hours before the start of the meeting - a heads-up Schmidt said will allow the district to make room for cameras.
"It's common courtesy if you're going to be a guest of somebody to abide by the rules they've set," he said.
He said the district looked into buying sound equipment to eliminate the need for the media to place microphones near school officials, but at $8,000, its cost might be too steep.
Jerimiah Moerke, news director for KVLY-TV, a Fargo NBC affiliate, said his staff might not be able to get usable audio from the back of a meeting room.
"This is potentially a way of quashing coverage at school board meetings," he said, adding, "If you're running for school board, you should know your name could be in the newspaper or you could be on television."
Jeff Nelson, the WDAY news director, said he has turned the rules over to the station's legal counsel and will decide how to proceed after hearing back. He said he's never run into such an objection to microphones in 15 years in the business.
Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson called the advanced notice rule "ludicrous" and unenforceable because the district can't legally ban the media from an open meeting.
"Very, very few public bodies in the state of Minnesota have ever tried to enforce such petty and, in some ways, inappropriate rules for the media," Anfinson said.
Greg Abbott of the Minnesota School Board Association said the group doesn't have a policy for media attendance because open meeting laws don't distinguish between the media and members of the public. But, he said, minimizing distractions is a valid concern: "If every member of the public put a microphone and a camera on the table in front of the board, they wouldn't get anything done."