BENNINGTON — Officials from the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union aren't saying why they wanted a credentialed Bennington Banner photographer confined to a canopy tent during last weekend's Mount Anthony Union High School drive-thru graduation.
The action has raised concerns about press restrictions from the Banner's news editor and the New England First Amendment Coalition.
Banner News Editor David LaChance said Katie West, the supervisory union's public information coordinator, later told him they were following a directive set forth by the Vermont Agency of Education. LaChance said he asked for, but was not provided, the directive.
The Agency of Education has guidelines for high school graduations during the COVID-19 pandemic. The guidelines call for "a minimal distance of 6 feet" between family groups and households. But, the guidelines offer no restrictions on media covering graduations. Professional journalists and photographers are classified as "essential workers" during the pandemic.
In an interview, Vermont Education Secretary Dan French said the state did not issue any individual guidance to the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union about media coverage at commencements.
"It's not coming from us," French said.
This reporter sent multiple requests to West on Tuesday, seeking an interview with school officials for explanation. West responded by asking for a list of questions, but on Wednesday morning said the supervisory union would not provide answers to those questions or any comment for this article.
Caroline Bonnivier, the Banner photographer covering the graduation, said she went about to photograph the ceremony when West told her not to leave the tent. Bonnivier said it appeared that West was taking instructions from a woman she heard others refer to as "Christine." A check of the school directory does not list anyone with the name Christine.
Between West and "Christine," Bonnivier was told three times to stay under the press tent, she said.
From the press tent, the view was obstructed by poles, tables and another tent, Bonnivier said. She explained why their demands to stay in the tent were unreasonable to her, but didn't get a reason why she had to stay put. Bonnivier said she was told the superintendent had given that order, but he was not at the graduation.
At one point, Bonnivier pointed out other adults and photographers who were closer to the ceremony.
"I asked [West] hypothetically if I could go over to where they were and photograph, since obviously it was OK for them to be there?" Bonnivier wrote in an email recounting the event. "She responded with `I'm not going to answer that.'"
Dissatisfied with the photos she had taken and receiving no explanation for why she must stay under the tent, Bonnivier moved to an area with a better view, near where photographers from Catamount Access Television and other people were standing while still maintaining a safe distance.
Bonnivier said she then saw "Christine" motion to a Bennington Police officer, who then approached Bonnivier and told her to return to the tent or leave. Bonnivier said she decided it best to leave the graduation.
Press tents were not something that the state of Vermont proposed or envisioned, according to French, the Vermont education secretary. The Banner inquiry was the first he had heard of the issue from any school district in Vermont, he said.
Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said journalists deserve fair access to events, even with the threat of COVID-19.
"No local officials, whether they're representatives or working for the school, should be hiding behind COVID guidelines to infringe upon the rights of the press to cover a newsworthy event like a graduation," he said, "and they certainly shouldn't be playing favorites and allowing better access to some media outlets than they're giving to others."
LaChance noted that, as far as he knew, only the two Bennington Banner staff members covering the event — Bonnivier and reporter Adam Samrov — were confined to the tent.
"She was trying to do her job," LaChance said. "She was doing what she quite reasonably does at every graduation."
Jack Lyons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 802-734-4408. Follow him on Twitter at @JackLyonsND. Banner correspondent Mike Donoghue contributed to this report.