The following case is from Ohio. It is not binding in Illinois. However, its facts and the ruling may be of interest to school officials. See the General Area “Public Access Counselor Opinions” for more information on the Illinois Open Meetings Act.
Patricia Paridon, among others, filed a complaint on October 20, 2011 for an injunction on the Trumbull County Children’s Services Board’s (“the board”) sign-in policy for public meetings. An injunction is a court order requiring a party to do something or to stop a party from doing something. Paridon asked the court to stop the board from enforcing its sign-in policy. The complaint alleged that on October 18, 2011, Paridon was not allowed to enter a public meeting of the board because she refused to sign a sign-in sheet in accordance with the board’s sign-in policy. Furthermore, the complaint alleged that this policy violated Ohio’s Sunshine Law. The trial court denied Paridon’s request for an injunction and she appealed the trial court’s judgment to the Court of Appeals.
The purpose of the board’s policy is to protect children that are within the board’s care and live at the board’s facility. The policy is also intended to protect the confidential records located within the facility. This facility is also where the public meetings are held. After a member of the public signs their name to the sign-in sheet, they are permitted to enter the meeting. The board does not verify the names of the individuals who have signed-in nor do they perform a background check.
Paridon made several arguments against the board’s policy. Among these arguments, Paridon stated that the Ohio’s Sunshine Law provided individuals with an absolute right to be present at public meetings. The court disagreed with this argument and stated that Ohio’s Sunshine Law does not preclude a public agency from instituting a policy requiring individuals to sign-in prior to admission to a public meeting. Paridon also argued that the board has not consistently required members of the public to sign-in prior to admission to a public meeting. However, the court stated that there was no evidence prior to this instance in which the board did not maintain a sign-in policy. Paridon then argued that Ohio’s Sunshine Law does not contain a sign-in requirement for public meeting and therefore, the board cannot implement one. The court disagreed with this argument as well, stating that the board may place access restrictions on their public meetings so long as these restrictions are content-neutral and narrowly tailored to serve a significant interest.
The court disagreed with all of Paridon’s remaining arguments. The court stated that the board’s sign-policy was content-neutral and narrowly tailored to assist in the board’s goal of protecting the children and the board’s confidential records. The court also stated that the sign-in policy was not intrusive into the lives of those wishing to attend the public meeting because it merely required a prospective attendee to sign his or her name to a sheet of paper. Furthermore, the policy did not prohibit individuals from attending the meeting. Rather, they had a choice to either sign their name or not. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling denying Paridon’s request for an injunction.
Melissa-Ann E. Evanchik, IASB Law Clerk