What the Law Actually Says About Requiring ID to Attend School Board Meetings

by Kemp Brinson

As reported in The Ledger, members of the public who wish to attend meetings of the Polk County School Board must show identification to get in. The article quotes Barbara Peterson, a lawyer and President of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, as saying that this practice is clearly unlawful: “They simply can’t do it; it’s absolute baloney.” The Ledger rebuked the practice in a strongly-worded editorial on Sunday.

School board attorney Wes Bridges disagreed; he was quoted as saying, “My bottom line is I have not seen any evidence that we are hindering access to public meetings.” According to the report in the Ledger, the School Board is applying a policy applicable to the building where the meeting is held, not requiring people to flash an ID to get in to the meeting, itself.

Does that matter? Is Bridges serving baloney? Or is Peterson? Do Florida’s sunshine laws actually forbid government agencies from checking ID at the door of public meetings?

The law is not crystal clear because there has never been a case on it, but I think the the policy would probably be deemed unlawful.

Here’s the law — First up, Fla. Stat. sec. 286.011(1):

“All meetings of any board or commission of any state agency or authority or of any agency or authority of any county, municipal corporation, or political subdivision, except as otherwise provided in the Constitution, at which official acts are to be taken are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times, and no resolution, rule, or formal action shall be considered binding except as taken or made at such meeting.” Id.

There is nothing in there about identification, but it does say that meetings must be “open to the public,” which may, or may not, depending on how you interpret it, prohibit agencies from requiring identification.

There is also this, a little further down in the same statute:

“All persons subject to subsection (1) are prohibited from holding meetings at any facility or location which discriminates on the basis of sex, age, race, creed, color, origin, or economic status or which operates in such a manner as to unreasonably restrict public access to such a facility.” Fla. Stat. sec. 286.011(6)

…still nothing about identification, but it does require that government bodies not “unreasonably restrict public access to such a facility.” Does that mean they cannot require identification? Does requiring identification “unreasonably restrict access to such a facility?”

Note that Bridges’ quote from the article seems to tie back to this language. It seems that Bridges’ is taking the position that if access is not unreasonably restricted to the meeting (whatever that means), then the School Board is allowed to institute this security practice.

Based on the statutes above, this appears to be an open, debatable question about whether requiring identification “unreasonably restricts” public access to the meeting, or whether requiring identification means the meeting is not “open to the public.”

I was not able to locate and Florida court cases that address the issue.

There are, however, two Attorney General’s opinion on point. Note that Attorney General’s opinions are just that, opinions. They are not binding law, but they are well respected and are often persuasive to judges, especially when used against a government agency that takes the opposite position. These opinions are written in response to questions submitted to the Attorney General by other government agencies and officials who seek advice about some issue of law that has not been addressed by courts yet.

To help summarize the requirements of law and the Attorney General’s recommendations and opinions, Florida’s Attorney General publishes a comprehensive Sunshine Manual to provide guidance to Florida government bodies about our sunshine laws. They also maintain an excellent website, http://www.myflsunshine.com/, with information for government agencies and the public about our sunshine laws.

The current edition of the Sunshine Manual (2012) refers to the two Attorney General’s Opinions on point (AGO 96-55 and 05-13, see Sunshine Manual p. 41, section I. G(3)(c)). The Opinions are reasonably clear and concise, so I will let them speak for themselves (in excerpts) instead of summarizing:

May the police pension board hold public meetings in a conference room located in a building that may be accessed by the public only by providing identification and leaving such identification with the duty officer as security for a numbered electronic key used to access the building’s elevators, and where permission must be given in order to enter the room where the meeting is held?

[...]

In sum:

…The city’s police pension board should not hold its meetings in a facility where the public has limited access and where there may be a “chilling” effect on the public’s willingness to attend by requiring the public to provide identification, to leave such identification while attending the meeting and to request permission before entering the room where the meeting is held.” Fla. AGO 96-55

The practices at issue in that situation were more egregious than those at issue here. (As far as I know, ID’s are not seized at the door at school board meetings and no one has to ask permission to enter the room.) But the opinion provides support for the legal argument that identification should not be required.

In the 2006 opinion, the Attorney General’s admonition was more explicit:

“This office has recognized that, in providing an opportunity for public participation, reasonable rules and policies that ensure the orderly conduct of a public meeting and that require orderly behavior on the part of those attending may be adopted. However, the requirement that persons attending a public meeting must provide identification as a condition of their attendance would not appear to be related to those goals. This is not to say however, that an agency may not impose certain security measures on members of the public entering a public building, such as requiring the public to go through metal detectors or have their purses or briefcases searched.

[...]

Accordingly, I am of the opinion that the City of Coral Gables may not require persons who wish to attend public meetings of its boards to present identification as a condition of attendance.” (AGO 05-13)

I think “baloney” was a bit of a reach, but there is support for Ms. Peterson’s conclusion that it is pretty clear that this is a bad idea. There is also support for Mr. Bridges’ assertion that the question is whether the restriction is “reasonable.”

The problem for the school board, however, is that the Attorney General has weighed in and advised other government officials that the practice is unreasonable. Again, this is not binding law, but I think this would be a pretty tough case for the school board to win, if it comes to that.

I think both Ms. Peterson and Mr. Bridges would agree that the following is an accurate summary of the law:

  1. The law requires that school board meetings be “open to the public” and that public access not be “unreasonably restricted.”
  2. There are no court cases that tell us whether requiring identification to attend a meeting violates these requirements. Whether the practice makes the meeting not “open to the public” or where public access is not “unreasonably restricted” is open to interpretation.
  3. Two plainly-worded Attorney General’s opinions by two different attorneys general and the Sunshine Manual assert that the law prohibits agencies from requiring identification to attend a public meeting. If there are alternatives available to the school board (such as restricting access to other parts of the building and/or using metal detectors) it would be on firmer legal ground to employ those in lieu of checking identification.

If I were the school board’s lawyer, that’s probably what I would advise them to do.

Edit 4/17/2012 – fixed a few typos and made a couple of sentences clearer