Press barred from public tour of public school

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d_kennedyBy Dan Kennedy

You wouldn’t think that when public officials tour a public school, anyone would be brazen enough to bar a news organization by claiming it’s a “private event on private property.” But that’s exactly what happened on Wednesday, according to the Newton Tab, which had assigned a reporter and a photographer to cover a tour of the $200 million Newton North High School construction site.

The Tab’s Dan Atkinson reports that Mayor David Cohen, a number of aldermen and members of the school’s design-review committee took the tour, but that Dimeo Construction wouldn’t allow the press to tag along — even though the event had been posted as being open to the public.

“It’s an essentially private event on private property,” Cohen spokesman Jeremy Solomon is quoted as saying. “It doesn’t entitle the media to attend.” Solomon added: “Elected officials deserve the courtesy to ask any questions without being concerned about how they’re portrayed in the Tab.”

The Newton North project — the most expensive public school in the history of the state, if not the known universe — has long been controversial. The Boston Globe’s Newton Wiki reports that the current price tag of nearly $200 million has almost doubled since 2003, when Cohen first proposed it. Newton voters approved it in a 2007 referendum.

Based on the facts as reported by the Tab, it’s unclear as to whether officials violated the Massachusetts open-meeting law, which, among other things, forbids private governmental meetings when there is a quorum present. Atkinson writes that “at least” nine aldermen took the tour — well short of a quorum, given that Newton has 24 aldermen. But if a quorum of design-review committee members was present, what took place might be considered an illegal meeting.

More important, what happened to the Tab on Wednesday was not just an affront to the press, but to the proposition that the public’s business should be conducted in public. As Tab publisher Greg Reibman said, “[I]t’s not the Tab that is being punished. It’s the taxpayers who are spending nearly $200 million on this project and they deserve to know how their dollars are being spent.”

Follow-up: Great catch by Michael Pahre, who notes that there is an “on-site inspection” exception to the open-meeting law. So, in all likelihood, no violation of the law took place. “That said,” Pahre writes, “the Newton officials were boneheaded in announcing this as a tour that is open to the public if they don’t want the press to attend.”

Even more: The Tab says that its reporter was allowed to take a tour today. But still no photos (or photographer), please.

Stranger and stranger: On Friday, the Tab posted a photo sent along by Alderman Ken Parker, who took a picture of the construction site on his iPhone during the Wednesday tour. Parker reports that no one tried to stop him, either.

Crossposted from Media Nation.

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One Response to “Press barred from public tour of public school”

  1. Keith E Jacobson Says:

    I am the photographer who was denied access to the building tour. I think the bottom line is this. When they saw me with a camera and did not yet know who I was someone said to me there will be no photography during the tour. The tour was after hours so most if not all of the construction workers were gone. The main question in my mind is what is the logic behind banning photography of the site?

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