Judge rejects request to bar media, other spectators from trial

Woodbury County District Judge Jeffrey Neary rejected a joint motion by attorneys who asked that media and other spectators be barred from his courtroom for the trial of a lawsuit this week that was brought by a former Sioux City schools superintendent against the school district.

Neary considered the joint request and arguments today and then issued his ruling immediately. Woody Gottburg, news director of KSCJ radio in Sioux City, represented the media at the hearing. Gottburg is the regional media coordinator for the Iowa court system’s program that allows journalists to use cameras, audio recorders and computers in covering many hearings and trials.

Paul Gausman, now the superintendent of schools in Lincoln, Neb., sued his former employer, alleging that the Sioux City school board violated Iowa’s open meetings law when it met behind closed doors to discuss Gausman’s professional competency.

Gausman said he was not informed of the sessions and had not asked for the discussion to occur in a closed meeting. Such closed-door discussions are intended to protect the professional reputation of an employee. The law stipulates that such discussions can be in closed session upon the request of the employee.

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, is designated by the Iowa Supreme Court to be the central coordinator of the cameras-in-the-courtroom program. During the hearing Monday, Gottburg shared the following Evans comments on the joint request by attorneys for Gausman and the school board:

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There are two broad requests contained in the joint objection that was filed with the court by Dr. Gausman and the Sioux City school district. The first request is to prohibit the use of cameras, audio recorders or other digital devices by the media inside the courtroom. The second request by the two parties is to prevent the news media and the public from even being present in the courtroom during this trial.

I will address their broader request first — that of whether to close the courtroom.

While we only represent the interests of the news media in resisting these requests, we believe that the request to close the courtroom to the public goes against the long tradition and the history of open courts in Iowa.

We believe the public has a right — and an expectation — to see the evidence that will be presented at trial. This public access ensures the courts remain accessible and accountable to the public and do not simply serve the private interests of the litigants. We further hope that the Court does not merely acquiesce to the desires for secrecy that Dr. Gausman and the Sioux City school district conveyed in their joint objection.

Public access to this trial ensures the school district and its elected leaders remain accountable to the public. That accountability cannot occur if the public and the media are prohibited from attending this trial.

The facts and allegations at the heart of this case do not represent some private dispute the parties are wanting the Court to decide. These are public officials and a public body. This case centers on the compliance or non-compliance with Iowa’s laws. Ultimately, the outcome of this case will involve potential expenditure of taxpayer money.

The request by the two parties to close this courtroom would prevent the public from understanding the basis and the rationale of the governmental decisions that are contained in the allegations involving Dr. Gausman and the Sioux City school board. The Iowa Legislature, in writing Iowa’s so-called sunshine laws, balanced the interests of the public against private interests. And lawmakers came down on the side of transparency, even when such transparency might cause embarrassment to government officials and others.

The Iowa Supreme Court offered guidance on the question of access to sealed records from closed meetings of government boards in a 1980 case called Telegraph Herald Inc. v. City of Dubuque. (It can be found at 297 N.W.2d 529, 535.) In its decision, the Court said, “If the sealed records are of probative value in these cases, they ordinarily will surface and become public in an enforcement trial.”

There is other guidance from the Iowa Supreme Court that bears on this trial, I think. In its 2019 decision in Mitchell v. City of Cedar Rapids, the Court cited a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision called Richmond Newspapers Inc. v. Virginia (found at 448 U.S. 555,572). The court said then, “We are mindful that people in an open society do not demand infallibility from their institutions, but it is difficult for them to accept what they are prohibited from observing.”

We hope the Court will not facilitate the efforts by the two parties in this case to keep the evidence and the actions of the parties from the taxpaying public who live in the Sioux City Community School District. Such secrecy will not bolster public trust and confidence in our governmental institutions.

I also want to briefly address the parties’ other request — that of whether to bar Expanded Media Coverage of this trial.

Because of the nature of this case, with allegations about the actions of the key administrator of the Sioux City schools at that time and other school leaders, the people of Sioux City have a deep interest in the evidence and testimony that will be presented and in the actions of Dr. Gausman and members of the board of education.

I don’t need to remind Your Honor of the Court’s broad discretion in fashioning a middle ground solution — one that balances the public’s inherent interest in this litigation, while finding accommodations regarding Expanded Media Coverage that address specific concerns from specific witnesses, while preserving Expanded Media Coverage of other witnesses.

Thank you for the opportunity to address the Court, Your Honor.