Updated June 27.
When George Schenk agreed to give Colchester High School’s 2011 commencement address, he meant for his remarks, on human sustainability, to be memorable.
They were, but not in the way the founder of American Flatbread intended.
Colchester Superintendent Larry Waters described Schenk’s speech as “highly regrettable … offensive and inappropriate for the venue and occasion.” Other attendees said they were “shocked,” “stunned” and “offended” by his remarks.
“He spoke in blunt language about human genitalia,” the Burlington Free Press reported.
What, exactly, did Schenk say that some people found so objectionable?
We may never know. At the request of school officials, Schenk himself won’t say, nor release the printed transcript. He’ll only admit he “strayed too far out on a limb” when he spoke, in graphic but scientific terms, about the effects cigarettes can have on sex organs.
Meanwhile, Lake Champlain Access Television, which recorded the event, edited Schenk’s entire speech out of the video, also at the request of school officials. Several news organizations, including WCAX-TV and Seven Days, asked to view Schenk’s speech privately, but LCATV says it didn’t retain a copy.
“I received a call from the principal Monday morning,” explains Kevin Christopher, executive director of LCATV. “We have completely excised the commencement address.”
Christopher says his station commonly discards unedited video footage, retaining only the version that airs. That raises questions about what’s public — and what’s not — at a community-access channel.
Among them: Are graduation ceremonies, which take place at taxpayer-funded schools, considered “public events” and thus subject to Vermont’s open-meeting law? What about community-access stations, which are also funded by public dollars? Is everything in the archive a “public record”? Should the recording of commencement be treated the same way as other public meetings, such as school board meetings?
Rob Chapman is president of the Vermont Access Network, which serves as the education and advocacy organization for the state’s 25 “access management organizations.” Those 25 so-called AMOs account for more than 40 community-access channels statewide. Chapman describes AMOs as “quasi-public entities” that are regulated like utilities and publicly funded through cable-television subscribers’ fees. In the case of LCATV, Comcast customers foot the bill.
On its website, LCATV calls itself a “not-for-profit public, education and government access television facility ... committed to serving the needs of our member communities by providing a free forum for the expression and exchange of ideas and information, a link to local government and schools, and a resource for education and training.” By law, LCATV’s annual reports, budgets and board minutes are open and available for public scrutiny.
Christopher emphasizes that they never edit or delete recordings of public meetings. However, LCATV doesn’t just record public meetings. According to Christopher, “commencement is in no way subject to the open-meetings law,” in part because not just anyone can attend.
“We are guests of the district. This was a ticketed event to which we were invited,” he says. “We are very careful to request permission to be there, and it’s up to the district to have the final say on the program.”
Not everyone in the community-access world sees it that way. Scott Campitelli is executive director of the Regional Educational Technology Network, which airs on Channel 16 for Comcast and Burlington Telecom subscribers in 12 towns in Chittenden and Addison counties.
RETN records seven public and two private high school graduations every spring, and Campitelli has always considered them to be public events. Why? Because RETN never asks for permission to be there, he says, nor does it need release forms from students or featured speakers.
Campitelli admits that, as public events, high school graduations are “neither fish nor fowl” — funded by tax dollars but not true public meetings like select board hearings. As such, they fall into a gray area. Moreover, he adds, AMOs have no legal obligation to be the official repositories of public records, nor treat their recordings as sacrosanct.
Years ago, before RETN began recording digitally, for example, school board meetings were on a two-month rotation, with RETN recording over old tapes to save money. Smaller community-access stations with very small budgets may still do the same, Campitelli says.
Is it kosher to erase original footage or refuse to release copies to the press upon request?
“I’m quite sure that Vermont case law does not have a decision on that issue,” suggests Doug Marden, an attorney with Little & Cicchetti, a Burlington law firm that represents the Vermont Access Network. “So, it’s still an open question.”
“It’s unfortunate when something embarrassing happens,” Campitelli adds. “At the same time, in our work with schools, we would be hesitant to hide or destroy things to keep them secret. Of course, it’s easy for me to be philosophical, because we’re not in their position.”
Schenk has an explanation for his choice of words. “To be silent felt irresponsible,” he says, noting he’s been “shocked” in recent years by the number of his young employees who smoke. But in making an important point, he concedes, “I deeply offended some members of the community and that’s not OK. I am at fault, and for that I am truly sorry.”
He’s also worried that a potential boycott of American Flatbread would hurt the Burlington franchise, which is independent of Schenk’s Waitsfield operation.
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