No Right to Anonymously Visit Government Meetings

An interesting decision in Paridon v. Trumbull County Childrens Servs. Bd. (Ohio Ct. App. Mar. 11, 2013) (some paragraph breaks added):

At issue is whether appellee, Trumbull County Children Services Board …, may require attendees of its public meetings to sign in before being admitted to such meetings….

[Appellants allege] they attended a public meeting of the board, but that they were not permitted to enter the meeting unless they signed a sign-in sheet, pursuant to the board’s sign-in procedure. Appellants alleged that the board’s rule violated Ohio’s Sunshine Law ….

Nicholas Kerosky, Executive Director of the Trumbull County Children Services Board, testified on cross-examination that the board has a written policy, which prohibits members of the public from entering the board’s building unless they sign in and state the nature of their visit. The written policy, which was admitted in evidence, provides that these security measures are necessary due to the “sometimes volatile nature of child welfare.”

Mr. Kerosky testified that this written policy applies whether the person is visiting the board’s facility during the board’s usual business hours to conduct business or in the evening to attend the board’s meetings.

Mr. Kerosky testified the purpose of this policy is to protect the children in the care and custody of the board, who reside in the board’s facility, and also to protect the confidential records maintained there by the board.

Mr. Kerosky said the board does not verify the name of those persons who sign in by requiring them to produce their driver’s license or other form of identification. Nor does the board perform any check on these individuals, such as a criminal history check. Thus, any member of the public is permitted to attend a meeting of the board by simply signing in….

The board’s meetings are held in the board’s facility on Reeves Road in Warren, Ohio. Most of the meetings are held in the training room. The October 18, 2011 meeting, which gave rise to this lawsuit, was held in the gym because attendance was expected to be higher than usual. Children in the care and custody of the board reside in the board’s facility. The area in which they reside can be accessed from various areas in the building, including the gym….

[A]ppellants argue that any condition imposed on the admission to a public meeting is null and void. They argue that because there is no sign-in requirement in the Sunshine Law, the board lacked authority to impose such a requirement. We do not agree.

A meeting of government officials, when opened to the public, is a limited public forum for discussion of subjects relating to the duties of those officials [citing First Amendment cases]. The public body may place limitations on the time, place and manner of access to its meetings, as long as the restrictions are content-neutral and narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest….

Appellants do not dispute that the protection of the children in the board’s care and custody is a significant governmental interest…. However, appellants argue that if the board is truly interested in protecting the children, they should move the meetings to another facility where children are not present. While [the Sunshine Law] does not state where a public body must hold its public meetings, it has been held that the public body must use a public meeting place. Appellants have failed to reference any authority that addresses the issue of what the public body must do if its general meeting place presents a risk to the security of its residents. Because [the Sunshine Law] is silent on this issue, we must conclude that the legislature has left the matter to the discretion of the public body.

Thus, the board has the discretion to determine where its public meetings will be held. It is not required to hold its meetings off-site because it also has an interest in ensuring the security of its children and confidential records. Instead, the board exercised its discretion to require members of the public wishing to enter its facility to sign in as a security measure. In upholding this policy, we cannot say that the trial court abused its discretion….

Further, the board’s sign-in requirement is narrowly tailored to serve the board’s interest in protecting the children and the board’s confidential records. In light of the board’s significant interest in providing for the care and custody of the children, it is difficult to imagine a less intrusive requirement than simply requiring members of the public who wish to attend a board meeting to sign his or her name. As noted above, the board does not verify the signature or investigate the citizen. It merely requires him or her to sign his or her name. As long as the person identifies himself or herself, he or she can enter the building, attend the board’s meetings, and express any views or opinions he or she chooses.

Appellants argue the board’s reason for the sign-in requirement, i.e., the security of its children and confidential records, is pretextual because the board does not check the signatures of those signing in. However, Mr. Kerosky testified it would not be feasible for the board to verify the signatures and run record checks on every person attending the board’s meetings.

Appellants argue that because the board does not check the signatures, the board is not really interested in the attendees’ names, and that the real purpose of the sign-in requirement is to count the number of attendees. They argue this can better be accomplished by simply placing a counting machine at the door to count the number of people entering the building. However, just because the board cannot feasibly verify the accuracy of the names of all attendees or run criminal record checks on them does not mean the board does not have a legitimate interest in retaining records of the attendees. This is particularly true if they are involved in an incident requiring investigation.

While appellants may not agree with the policy decisions made by the board to protect the children in its charge, the board has the discretion to make these choices. It is worth noting that the sign-in policy applies to anyone wishing to enter the board’s facility for any purpose, not only to attend a board meeting, further evidencing that the purpose of the board’s policy is to promote security, not to interfere with the public’s right to attend its meetings….

Diane V. Grendell, J., dissents ….

Pursuant to [the Sunshine Law], it is important that individuals are free to attend public meetings without restrictions that impede their access and essentially render the meetings closed to the public…. The United States Supreme Court has recognized the importance of anonymity, in the context of free speech. It has held that anonymity can be “assumed for the most constructive purposes,” and that “there are times and circumstances when States may not compel members of groups engaged in the dissemination of ideas to be publicly identified.” It was further explained that “identification and fear of reprisal might deter perfectly peaceful discussions of public matters of importance.” In the present matter, similar anonymity concerns may be raised, in that individuals participating in a public meeting or observing the public discussion are compelled to identify themselves. This may bring fear of reprisals, which was testified to by appellant Paridon, who stated that she believed that TCCSB may retaliate based on her attendance at its meetings….

It is argued by the appellee and the majority that the sign-in requirement is permissible because it was necessary to protect the safety of the children residing at TCCSB’s facility where the meeting was held. There are multiple reasons, however, why creating such a restriction on freely attending public meetings at the board’s facility is both unnecessary and is not narrowly tailored. First, the board could have simply moved its meeting to a different facility, one that did not pose any risks to children. This would not be overly burdensome, as it would only require the board to hold its meeting at any available location that could be safely open to the public. As was noted by the majority, there is no requirement that a hearing be held at a specific location or where the public body normally conducts its business. If the board’s purpose for adopting the sign-in requirement was to protect children, this would be a better solution, since it would allow the children to be safe and also would not impede on the open meeting requirement.

Second, the sign-in requirement fails to serve the asserted “significant governmental interest.” The testimony presented revealed that there was no requirement to sign in with an individual’s actual name and no verification of the identity of those attending occurred. It is unclear, then, what purpose is served by signing in or how it could serve any interest, including the protection of children. Therefore, this process is not only unduly restrictive of an individual’s right to attend a public meeting but also fails to serve any meaningful purpose. [Footnote: To the extent it may be implied that someone attending the meeting sign in under a false name, such conduct has criminal connotations.]