November 19, 2013 9:36:51 AM
Carl Smith - firstname.lastname@example.org
Documents show Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins amended a resolution Monday that could ban electronic devices -- smartphones, tablets and laptops -- to now only prohibit the public from bringing cellphones into aldermen meetings effective Dec. 3.
The new motion, which cites similar bans for Oktibbeha County Circuit Court and Starkville Municipal Court, removed language targeting social media users and states the board wishes "to enact a similarly reasonable time, place and manner restriction on cellular phones, while allowing ample alternative channels for communication with such devices outside the boardroom."
If passed, public attendees would have to pass through a metal detector located outside the boardroom. A member of Starkville Police Department would be stationed at the detector and enforce the rule there and inside the courtroom. Those found in violation of the resolution may be asked to leave meetings.
Members of the press and Mississippi State University journalism students -- those using cellphones in the performance of their duties -- are excluded from the new motion.
Three Starkville officials -- Mayor Parker Wiseman, Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver and Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker -- came out against the original resolution. Wiseman and Walker are expected to maintain their positions. Carver previously told the Dispatch he would not be in town for Tuesday's meeting.
Perkins stumped for the new version of the phone ban in Starkville Daily News and on WTVA. The senior alderman has not returned the Dispatch's calls since the resolution became public knowledge Friday.
"On many occasions, cellular phones have rung out, creating disturbances during the meetings of the board. On occasions when they have rung out, the rings have been very annoying," he told WTVA. "The initial resolution and the current one, in my opinion, meet all the legal requirements in conversing with our city attorney."
Ward 5 Alderman Scott Maynard acknowledged a disturbance from a ringing cellphone in the board's previous meeting, saying the incident was "the icing on the cake." He did not say if he would vote for or against Perkins' amended resolution.
Residents took to social media outlets this weekend, hammering the board for the proposal. Members of Starkville Thinks, a grassroots collective of residents aiming to shed light upon local governance issues through live tweeting board meetings, said the motion would prevent them from opining and critiquing the city's actions during board meetings. Numerous residents are expected to speak against the resolution Tuesday.
"I have no desire to restrict free and open speech, but cellphones going off are a distraction," Maynard said. "There may be a positive way to handle this. If it gets to the table, I'll judge the best option to meet everyone's needs."
While Perkins' change eliminated language targeting social media -- exemptions to the media, in the original version, did not apply to "Internet bloggers or anyone engaged purely in social media" -- smartphones are still tools used for such communication and for audio/visual recordings of meetings.
A 2007 opinion from the Mississippi Attorney General's Office prevented Verona officials from banning the public outright from recording its meetings.
That opinion states, "[I]t is the opinion of this office that the citizen's/public's purpose or intended use for the recording has no bearing on whether same should be allowed. Indeed, to attempt to limit the use of any such recording, or to prohibit recording unless it is for a specific, enumerated reason, would clearly violate the intent of the Open Meetings Law. Therefore, it is the opinion of this office that the board may develop rules concerning the tape recording of its meetings to allow for minimal disruption thereof, but may not limit or restrict such recordings based upon the person's purpose in making the recording."
"If the board of aldermen wishes to prevent people from using their cell phones or other electronic devices during a meeting, they may legally do so. Such a policy would be a valid time, place and manner regulation," said Mark Goodman, a Mississippi State University mass media law professor. "The board could not ban someone from posting a tweet about what happened at the board meeting while the meeting was open to the public. Since people can send such tweets about the meeting by walking out to the hallway, recovering their phone and tweeting their message, there is no attempt to use regulation to censor free speech."
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch