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Plan Commission decision can be challenged

BY Carolyn Muyskens - cmuyskens@chronicle-tribune.com

After student journalists from Indiana Wesleyan University and members of the public were barred from recording a public meeting of the Grant County Area Plan Commission Monday night, the decision of the commission to shoot down the proposed hog farm could be in jeopardy.

Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt said the laws regarding public meeting access are unambiguous.

“Open Door Law clearly says the public is entitled to record all public meetings … Courts have interpreted that to include video and audio recording,” Britt said. “It's always been the position of this office that it's fine for people to have smartphones out recording in meetings.”

Sevgi Diedrich tried to take a live video during the meeting with her smartphone Monday night and was told to stop by a Sheriff's deputy.

Diedrich said before the meeting started she was told there would be no recording allowed.

“I went up to the lawyers and asked them and said it's Indiana Open Door Law and they said no, we're going to treat this as a courtroom,” Diedrich said Monday.

The IWU students, Silas Weghorst and Daniel McMurray, were reporting for a television news class as well as for GrantCOnnected.net, a student-run news site. The students told the C-T Monday that Bruce Elliott, attorney for the Area Plan Commission, told them they could not record the meeting in any format.

Local farmer Nolan Holloway is unsure what his next move is in his application for a construction permit for a hog farm, which became controversial this fall and was denied by the commission's 8-2 vote Monday night.

His attorney Brianna Schroeder said they are weighing different options for action, including a potential challenge on the grounds of violation of Open Door Law.

“We're disappointed in the result, and we're considering every option,” Schroeder said.

Britt said there are several options for action through the Office of the Public Access Counselor.

If a person at the meeting was denied the ability to record, as Diedrich and the IWU students say they were, he or she would have grounds to make a formal complaint to the public access counselor, which would issue a ruling on the complaint.

Randall King, professor of communication at IWU, who teaches the class the students were working on a project for, said he doesn't have any plans to formally challenge the commission's actions at the meeting. As a professor of journalism, though, he expressed surprise and concern at the denial of access.

“The only agenda the students had was to cover this for a class,” King said. “Any time basic freedoms of the press are in trouble, it's bad for the public. These laws are in place for a reason.”

A person who wasn't directly prohibited from recording could still ask for an informal opinion from the office, Britt said, which would issue a written statement about the office's views on the incident.

Steve Key, general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, told the C-T Monday that a member of the public could also challenge the Area Plan Commission in court.

Britt said it would take an “egregious denial of access” for a court to overturn Monday's vote, but he can't predict what the courts would deem “egregious.”

The explanation Elliott offered the C-T Monday for the ban on recording was that it was the commission's policy. He cited courtroom regulations.

“Recording and video cameras and cameras are not allowed in the courtrooms in the State of Indiana,” Elliott said Monday.

But Britt said the comparison isn't valid.

“An Area Plan Commission isn't a court. … And they can't turn themselves into courts, and they can't declare themselves to be courts,” Britt said.

Britt said he couldn't think of an exception that would allow the commission to ban audio and video recordings. The commission is allowed to ensure that recording devices, such as large cameras, don't hinder the meeting, for example by blocking someone's view, but beyond those guidelines cannot ban the use of recording devices altogether.

The C-T has also openly made audio recordings of Area Plan Commission meetings that reporters have covered, including Monday's meeting, without ever having a no-recording policy enforced.

When asked Tuesday to provide the specific policy that banned the public from recording, Elliott hung up.