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From left, Ashe County Principal of the Year David Blackburn, Watauga County Board of Education member Ron Henries and homeschooling mother of five Anne Margaret Wright participate in a panel discussion Dec. 5. Kellen Short | Watauga Democrat.

Originally published: 2013-12-09 14:01:05
Last modified: 2013-12-10 11:54:11

Soucek disappointed by forum 'antics'

by Kellen Short

State Sen. Dan Soucek of Boone said he thought a community forum on education issues hosted Thursday in Deep Gap was effective, although he was "disappointed with some of the antics of the audience."

Heckling and shouts from the floor frequently interrupted the panel discussion, and a sheriff's deputy led one woman out of the Deep Gap Volunteer Fire Department after she shouted from her seat.

One panelist, Anne Margaret Wright, said at one point that her young children were sitting in the audience better behaved than some adults.

Some attendees grumbled about being asked to submit questions in writing and particularly about a request from Soucek that no one record the event on video.

Soucek said Friday that he was concerned that people were questioning the format of the event, rather than the content. He explained that he requested no filming out of respect for the panelists, who included teachers, parents and school administrators.

"These are private citizens, teachers, parents, and I wanted this to be a safe environment, where they felt safe that we could have a robust conversation that wouldn't show up somewhere where it would defame them," Soucek said.

He said his staff spoke with the Watauga County Sheriff's Office, which consulted with the county attorney about the issue.

Soucek said he was told that since he organized and paid for the event, he had the authority to deem anything proper or disruptive.

"This was an event that I held and invited people to, so in short, I set the format and the rules as to what I think is going to be most beneficial to the audience," Soucek said.

County Attorney Stacy "Four" Eggers said Friday that he was not authorized by the county to comment on county business and therefore could not confirm whether the sheriff's office was advised in that way.

N.C. Press Association attorney Mike Tadych said Friday that no statute directly addressed the issue, but that case law has clarified some questions about the ability of the public to record events.

"If it was truly called as an open meeting under the open meetings law, then it would be inappropriate to restrict (audio or video recording)," Tadych said.

Tadych said he did not believe the forum met the statutory definition of an open meeting, but that it was still an "all-come meeting," not an invitation-only event held in a private home or business.

"I don't think anybody would have any reasonable expectation of privacy," he said.

If a unit of the government had prevented the video recording of an open meeting, whether by removing the videographer or his equipment, it would likely be a violation of First Amendment rights, Tadych said. If a private individual prevented the recording, it would be a separate issue between the videographer and the individual.

Nothing would prevent Soucek from merely asking that the audience respect his desire not to film, he said.

"Certainly, they can request whatever they want, and people are free to agree or disagree with it," Tadych said.

Soucek said some who attended the event were paid by liberal groups such as the Democratic Party, the NAACP or and were expected to be disruptive.

"It's disappointing, because it's not democracy, it's -- I have a lot of words I could use," he said.

Ian O'Keefe, field director for the Watauga County Democratic Party, said no one was paid by the county party to attend the event. Representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and could not be reached by presstime to confirm whether such strategies were used.

Soucek also called it a "sad state of affairs" that law enforcement contacted him beforehand to say they wanted to have a presence at the forum.

The second-term senator said all of three of his forums -- including events in Avery and Caldwell counties -- were designed to provide an explanation to citizens about the legislative changes made last session.

The discussion tackled contested topics such as teacher compensation, tenure, master's degrees, pre-kindergarten and other issues.

Soucek, the co-chairman of the Senate education committee and education appropriations committee, said he was thankful to hear from people who will help him to make better decisions in the future.

"I think the panel consisted of the right people. We had some really knowledgeable people from different areas," he said. "I was really pleased with the topics and how all of it was handled."