OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) has recently received two letters regarding possible Open Meeting Act violations due to not moving its monthly board meeting to a larger venue.
In July, posters hung on the doors of the Hodge Building. The posters notified the public to a limitation on how many people could sit in on the Board of Education meeting moving forward.
The State Fire Marshal’s office put a cap on 49 people being allowed in the meeting room. That number includes Board members, the media, and any required personnel.
“By the time you count all the people who have to be in there, that’s about 49. I mean, they had room for one to six additional,” stated Oklahoma Assistant State Fire Marshal, James Fullingim.
The State Board of Education monthly meeting has attracted more people than in the previous year under former State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister.
News 4 has shown up to the Hodge Building hours in advance to see a queue of people who were already lined up.
Tori Caswell is a mom of three Stillwater Public Schools students, who has attended the last few meetings. The Board of Education meeting on Thursday will be her fourth one.
With the meeting room capacity, she told KFOR it has been difficult to sit in on the meeting.
Attendees can sit in a chair lined up in the hallway or wait in the lobby, but those too have a capacity of 49 people.
“They’re doing illegal things. They’re doing questionable things and we want to be in the room,” stated Caswell. “I’ve been going to the State Board of Education meetings for several months now, and most of the people lined up are in their eighties and seventies, and they don’t have children they have to take to school. And so we are not allowed to sit in the room because we can’t get there early enough. It impedes our ability to be in the room when these important discussions about education are being had and I want as many diverse people in the room as possible.”
Caswell is part of a group called Defense of Democracy who “advocates for parents, teachers, students, librarians and all Americans who are fighting every day to protect their civil rights from hate groups.” Her chapter is in Payne County.
Defense of Democracy, along with the help of a Stillwater-based attorney hand delivered a letter to the State Department of Education expressing their concerns over a lack of public access in Board meetings.
“The Oklahoma Open Meetings Act (25 O.S. §§ 301 et seq.) mandates that all meetings of public bodies must be open to the public, and the public must be provided with advance notice of such meetings. This act exists to ‘encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry’s understanding of governmental processes.’ See § 302. Furthermore, the Act requires that all meetings be ‘held at…places which are convenient to the public and shall be open to the public….’ See § 303.”Defense of Democracy’s letter to the Oklahoma State Department of Education reads.
The letter goes on to say numerous people were either turned away due to capacity limitations or were told they could sit on the floor during the Sept. 28 Board of Education meeting.
“Moreover, those who signed up to speak at the meeting were only called in at their allotted time without the benefit of attending or hearing the rest of the meeting, which diminishes the quality of public engagement and deliberation.
We hereby formally request that the Board take proactive steps to ensure that future meetings are held in venues that can adequately accommodate the interested members of the public. Moreover, we urge the Board to ensure that all attendees, including those scheduled to speak, have the opportunity to fully participate in the meetings. Such steps are not only aligned with the spirit and letter of the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act but are also essential for fostering a robust democratic process where public engagement is encouraged and facilitated.”Defense of Democracy’s letter to the Oklahoma State Department of Education states.
The group and its attorney proposed the Board explore the possibility of securing larger venues for its meetings or utilizing technology to allow for virtual participation.
“Furthermore, it has come to our attention that a significant majority of the attendees who were able to secure a place in the meeting appeared to share similar viewpoints, thus raising concerns about the diversity and inclusivity of the discourse during the meeting. There is a growing
apprehension among various stakeholders that there may be deliberate attempts, by the Board or individuals acting on its behalf, to pack the meetings with like-minded individuals to the exclusion of opposing or differing views. Such a practice, if true, not only undermines the principles of openness, fairness, and democratic engagement as enshrined in the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act, but also tarnishes the integrity and credibility of the Board,” the letter continues to read.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has also sent the OSDE a letter citing an Open Meeting Act violation. This letter was sent on behalf of Oklahoma news organizations.
“The Oklahoma Press Association, Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, and individual journalists have brought to our attention the fact that recent monthly meetings of the Board are attended in such great numbers that securing access to the room is extremely difficult if not impossible for members of the public and news media alike,” the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press states. “Consequently, the vast majority of Oklahomans who would like to view or participate in Board meetings are unable to do so. Equally troubling, many media outlets are unable to have reporters in attendance, depriving their journalists of the opportunity to effectively report on the proceedings to audiences across the state.”
The letters states meetings of public bodies shall be held “at specified times and places which are convenient to the public and shall be open to the public.”
“Although Oklahoma courts have not addressed the specific issue of a government entity’s obligation to accommodate members of the press and public who wish to attend a meeting when interest outstrips capacity, what case law there is makes clear the Act is to be ‘construed liberally in favor of that public’ and strongly suggests that when a facility is rendered inadequate a more suitable one should be found. See Wilson v. City of Tecumseh, 194 P.3d 140, 144 (Okla. Civ. App. 2008),” the letter continues.
The letter addresses a previous RSVP advisory sent to news outlets. The RSVP required journalists planning to attend that month’s meeting to sign up.
“The press release—labeled “Not for Print/Distribution”—stated: “If you do not RSVP, we may not be able to accommodate you in the Hodge building for Thursday’s meeting.” The webpage hosting the RSVP portal does not appear to exist in a public-facing location that might be found by a person without the link on the press release, through search, for example, or by navigating the Board’s website. As a result, media outlets that do not have access to the press release issued by your office—because they are small or non-traditional outlets, for instance, or for some other reason have been excluded from the distribution list—are categorically disadvantaged by the RSVP system. With so few spots in the boardroom available for journalists and other members of the public, a hurdle like that imposed by the RSVP system operates, in effect, like a categorical ban on nontraditional or otherwise disfavored or excluded media outlets—a stark violation of the First Amendment. For the foregoing reasons, we ask that the Board hold future meetings in a facility large enough to accommodate the interested public and news media.”The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press letter to OSDE reads.
OSDE Director Communications, Dan Isett told KFOR, “Despite the fever dreams of left-wing activists, we are in full compliance with the law. It’s a shame some folks are more concerned with disrupting open meetings than they are with improving student outcomes.”
During the pandemic, former Attorney General Mike Hunter released an advisory regarding the Open Meeting Act.
Can a public body regulate (or limit through technology) the number of attendees to
“No. While other laws and regulations, like a fire code or public health guidelines, may limit
the number of people allowed in a location, a public body may not use those laws and
regulations to limit the number of persons attending an open meeting, whether the meeting
is in-person, by videoconference, or by teleconference.
If there are limits on the number of people who can be in one location, the public body will
need to evaluate whether a larger meeting space or additional rooms are needed. If multiple
rooms or locations are used, there must be live audio and video feed between the
Similarly, if there are limits on the number of people who can call into a teleconference orFormer Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter
join a videoconference, the public body will have to provide a number or website that does
not have such limitations.”
Oklahoma State University School of Media and Strategic Communications Associate Professor, Joey Senate told KFOR live streaming on social media is not protected under the Open Meeting Act.
“Facebook is not acceptable because people have to join Facebook in order to get that access. So it has to be when we talk about live streaming, it has to be simply on the agenda. They could put the URL where people can click in and simply see the meeting,” stated Senat.
He said the purpose behind the Open Meeting Act is to ensure the public can oversee government and understand what’s going on.
“The best way to do that is to be at a meeting and see them,” added Senat. “The Open Meeting Act doesn’t explicitly speak to how many people have to be in a room. The advisory said pretty clearly, you can’t limit the number of people who can attend a meeting because of, you know, the fire marshal.”
Before the State Department of Education can move its monthly meeting to another event space, the Secretary of State should be notified at least 10 days prior to the meeting. It’s not written in law though, according to Senat.
“Our volunteers in Oklahoma are working class parents who dedicate their free time to make public education inclusive and representative of the diversity within our state. The demand letter to OSDE is an effort to create space for all voices to be heard, instead of just the voices that align with Ryan Walters’ extreme version of Christianity. Walters’ behavior has demonstrated a disdain for public school parents and students in Oklahoma. He has shown that he is not only unqualified, but uninterested in being the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. We will continue to fight these attacks on our constitutional freedoms as parents and educators.”Defense of Democracy
The next Board of Education meeting will be Thursday, Oct. 26 at 9:30 a.m.