Academic journal article Iowa Law Review

Let's Meet in the Middle: Constitutional Challenges and Policy Problems with Iowa's Open Meetings Law, with Suggestions for Improvement

Academic journal article Iowa Law Review

Let's Meet in the Middle: Constitutional Challenges and Policy Problems with Iowa's Open Meetings Law, with Suggestions for Improvement

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

The news magazine The Week has a feature called "Boring but Important," which covers issues the average news consumer likely finds dull but whose impact on the wider world merits public attention.1 One might also appropriately apply the "Boring but Important" label to local government meetings in Iowa. A city council, school board, or drain commission meeting is unlikely to excite anyone. But these local governments serve essential functions, not least of which is administering budgets that can reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars.2

Given the importance of the mundane exercise of local government, it is not surprising that these entities are subject to all manner of regulation. These regulations include a requirement that meetings of governmental bodies be open to the media and the general public.3 But what is the basis of this openness requirement, and how can it operate optimally to best serve the people it is designed to benefit?

The Framers of the Constitution contemplated the importance of open government, at least by implication, by enumerating freedom of the press in the First Amendment.4 A free press can operate only to the extent it has knowledge, or access to knowledge, of the government's secrets.5 Nearly 200 years after independence, a sweeping, nationwide effort to enact "Sunshine Laws" began in response to a public desire for greater access to government secrets.6 Sunshine Laws mandate that most government meetings and records be open to the public, thereby allowing citizens to access and scrutinize the actions of elected officials and public servants.7 This push arrived in Iowa in 1967.8

As with any novel exercise in lawmaking, Iowa's open meetings statute did not satisfy all parties.9 Despite its worthwhile goals, the law continues to operate in some flawed ways that demand legislative and judicial attention. This Note discusses some of these flaws, both legal and political, and offers possible solutions for improving the law in a more fair and legal manner.

Part II of this Note provides an overview of the history of Iowa's open meetings law,10 its most important provisions, and its enforcement.11 It also gives a brief overview of Free Speech doctrines courts use when assessing restraints on speech.12 Part III analyzes how the open meetings law operates as a possibly unconstitutional restraint on elected officials' speech.13 It also assesses the policy downsides the open meetings law causes, including its tendency to frustrate agencies from achieving their purpose, its effect on elected officials, and its uneven application across different organizations within state government.14 Finally, in Part IV, this Note concludes with suggestions for legislative15 and judicial improvement.16

II. The History of Chapter 21, an Overview of its Provisions, and a Brief Review of Free Speech Law

The desire for open government is obvious and intuitive. Significant historical events of the 20 th century, from the Kennedy assassination to the watergate scandal, were marred by actual or perceived secrecy, which undercut Americans' faith in democracy.17 More recently, the 2016 Presidential Election arguably turned on Secretary Hillary Clinton's sidestepping of public record laws.18 Nonetheless, legislation mandating open government, and specifically outlining acceptable conduct by elected officials, must be squared with state constitutions, the federal constitution, and the legal protections to which elected officials are no less entitled.19 With this in mind, this Part explains the origin of Iowa's open meetings law, outlines its various provisions and mechanisms of enforcement, assesses freedom of speech as it applies to elected officials, and analyzes the basic doctrines of free speech law that might apply when a court reviews open meetings laws for compliance with the First Amendment.

A. Open Meetings Laws Come to Iowa

Long before Wikileaks, Whitewater, and Watergate became synonymous with government secrecy and corruption, Americans were pushing for improved access to government meetings and records at the federal and state levels. …

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