LITTLE ROCK — The Fort Smith School Board did not violate the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act when members voted at a June 2015 meeting to do away with Southside High School’s Rebel mascot and “Dixie” fight song, the Arkansas Court of Appeals said Wednesday.
The court upheld an October 2015 ruling by Sebastian County Circuit Judge James Cox that dismissed a lawsuit by June Bradshaw of Fort Smith.
According to the court’s opinion, on June 23, 2015, five members of the school board were waiting for a member who was running late when they decided to meet as a committee of the whole and discuss whether to keep the mascot and fight song.
The unscheduled discussion was prompted by a racially motivated church shooting in Charleston, S.C., and subsequent national debate over use of the Confederate flag.
The five members voted in open session to end use of the mascot and fight song, but the decision still needed approval by the full board. The board then went into a scheduled closed session to evaluate the superintendent.
On July 27, 2015, the board voted that Southside would stop playing “Dixie” immediately and would replace the Rebel mascot for the following school year.
Southside’s mascot is now the Maverick and its fight song is “Wabash Cannonball.”
Bradshaw claimed the board provided insufficient notice of the June 23, 2015, committee meeting. Although the board gave notice of a board meeting, it improperly failed to give notice of the committee meeting, she alleged.
A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals disagreed, saying in its decision Wednesday the board met the FOIA’s notice requirements and Bradshaw did not show she was harmed.
The FOIA requires that notice of a public meeting be given to the news media and any individuals who request it, but nothing in the statute requires notice to the general public, and Bradshaw did not request notification, the judges said in their decision. They also said the law does not require public bodies to give notice of what will be discussed at a meeting.
Bradshaw also alleged that Cox erred in ruling that her suit was frivolous, which she claimed tarnished her reputation. The appeals court said she provided no evidence to support her claim.
The court said it would not consider an allegation by Bradshaw’s attorney, Joey McCutchen, that he was harmed by the ruling that the suit was frivolous. McCutchen was not a party in the suit, the court said.
McCutchen said in a statement Wednesday he was “shocked and extremely disappointed” by the decision and would file a petition for rehearing in the Court of Appeals and a petition for review in the state Supreme Court. He said he would seek legislative changes if his petitions are unsuccessful.
McCutchen said that if the ruling stands, “it will allow an entity to give notice of a closed meeting and then hold a completely separate open meeting. The decision will also allow an entity subject to the Freedom of Information Act to misstate the purpose of a meeting, if it states the purpose in the notice.”
McCutchen said the decision also “abrogates the right of the public to bring a claim for violating the Open Meeting Act unless the member has received notice of the meeting. This was never the intention of the Freedom of Information Act.”
The Fort Smith School District issued a statement Wednesday that summarized the court’s ruling but did not comment on it.