Lawmakers on Maine’s Judiciary Committee held a public hearing Wednesday on LD 864, “An Act To Protect Teachers’ Privacy While Delivering Remote Instruction,” a bill sponsored by Rep. Janice Dodge of Belfast.
The bill would allow public and private schools in Maine to determine who is authorized to view live and recorded remote classroom sessions, and punish with fines (no less than $200 and no more than $500) those who are unauthorized to participate in remote learning if they photograph, copy, record, distribute or retransmit a recorded session of remote instruction. Under the guise of “privacy,” this bill would elevate teachers to a class of public servants more protected from scrutiny than any other.
The mere designation of any member of the public as “unauthorized” to observe a public employee in the course of their work itself is a violation of the basic standards of transparency we expect from public officials, not to mention current federal court precedent.
The only exceptions provided for students’ parents or guardians in LD 864 are for their “incidental” viewing or listening of remote learning sessions “as necessary to assist a student in accessing remote instruction.” This is far below an adequate standard of transparency required of public officials in the course of their jobs serving the public.
Just like police officers and other agents of the state, when public tax dollars pay their salaries, the public deserves full transparency. Don’t get me wrong; their work is essential, but school teachers are not a protected class of workers.
Rulings from federal courts have repeatedly affirmed the right of public citizens to record government officials in the course of their public duties. In 2011, the First Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal circuit which oversees cases originating from the northeastern US, including Maine, ruled in Glik v. Cunniffe that indeed, the public has a right to receive information and ideas from their government.
In a unanimous decision, the court wrote that, “Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting the free discussion of governmental affairs.”
This bill is simply unacceptable, especially for the thousands of parents across Maine who are demanding a return to 5-day-a-week, in-person instruction. Public schools should not be the gatekeepers of who gets to hold them accountable. Parents deserve more than “incidental” access to their children’s education, and the public deserves full transparency from their officials and institutions.
Lawmakers on the committee should vote “Ought Not To Pass” on LD 864 and avoid the significant constitutional conflicts that would arise if it were to become law. Efforts to reduce transparency among government officials and make their work more opaque to the public should always be opposed, though LD 864 is a particularly egregious example.