After a one-year battle and more than $20,000 in legal fees, the Ithaca City School District will release the footage of a guest speech by activist Bassim Tamimi at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School in the fall of 2015.
The decision results from a Freedom of Information Law Request filed last September by Cornell law professor and conservative blogger William Jacobson, who wrote about the speech last year on his blog, LegalInsurrection.com.
Tamimi, a pro-Palestinian activist whose use of children in politically driven materials has drawn scorn in some circles, was invited to speak to the third-grade class by local activist Ariel Gold and gave statements "not developmentally appropriate for third graders, nor aligned with the New York State standards," Superintendent Luvelle Brown said in a statement last September. The talk itself prompted a review in policy and procedures for guest speakers and visitors in the Ithaca City School District, according to a news release from last September.
Initially released in the form of a written transcript because the video itself contained the voices and faces of the district's third-grade students, Judge Phillip Rumsey, a justice for the Cortland County Supreme Court in the 6th Judicial District of New York, ruled Friday the video should be released if Jacobson is willing to pay for the redaction of the video.
In an email to The Ithaca Journal on Monday, Jacobson said ICSD had not yet provided the cost of redacting the videos.
According to the ruling, the redaction would be completed in a way that blurs the student's faces, eliminates any reference to names or other factual information that would directly identify a student, and allows their words to remain clearly audible while altering their voices to be "slightly muffled or obscured."
Jacobson said at the start of the process, he asked ICSD to release the video with redactions to protect student privacy but was denied, instead receiving an incomplete, partial transcript.
"Ultimately, the court agreed with me and ordered ICSD to do what I had proposed a year ago," Jacobson said in a statement. "The court also is reviewing the massive redactions to documents by ICSD, and more documents may be ordered released. ICSD wasted taxpayer money fighting a losing battle to conceal video and documents."
Following the ruling, the district released this statement:
Following a presentation by Bassim Tamimi at the Beverly J. Martin Elementary School last year, the Ithaca City School District received a series of FOIL requests from William Jacobson, author of the legalinsurrection.com website. The district responded by providing hundreds of pages of documents. The district declined to produce video footage of the event itself taken by a community member because the video contained the voices and faces of the district's third grade students. Instead, the district provided Mr. Jacobson with a transcript of the video. Other records were withheld or redacted in order to protect the confidentiality of students, community members, and district personnel. For example, although the district provided Mr. Jacobson with the substance of the written complaints it received regarding the Tamimi appearance, following consultation with the Committee on Open Government, it redacted the names and contact information of the complaining individuals in order to preserve their privacy. In April 2016, Mr. Jacobson filed a petition seeking disclosure of the undisclosed records and removal of all redactions.
Since the original complaint was filed Sept. 19, 2015, ICSD has paid Syracuse law firm Bond, Schoeneck & King, PLLC $20,743 in fees and litigation expenses related to Jacobson's FOIL requests to the district, including $9,300 related to an earlier petition brought by Jacobson against both the Ithaca City School District and the Ithaca Teachers Association.
According to a statement from ICSD, the district's consultation with the firm prior to December 2015 was billed within the district's $7,500 per month flat fee arrangement with the firm.