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Council excludes media from tribal meeting

Though Cherokee Tribal Council meetings are broadcast live online and through tribal television — as well as recorded on DVDs — council retains the right to exclude non-Cherokee people from its chamber. 

During its Dec. 11 meeting, it did just that, requesting that police officers escort a reporter from The Smoky Mountain News — me — off the premises.  

The newspaper had opted to send me to the December meeting following a couple of controversy-filled council meetings in October and November, which eventually resulted in publication of a story on the topic the day before the December meeting. Upon arrival to the building, an officer asked me to retrace my steps back to the front office. 

“You have to ask permission to go into the meeting,” the woman managing the office told me. 

That is standard procedure for a Cherokee meeting, but at previous meetings I’d been allowed to enter the chamber on my own to request that council allow me to stay. In this instance, the office manager told me that two media requests had been denied already that day, and, when I insisted on asking permission on my own, took down my name, company and the agenda items I was there to hear. 

She instructed me to wait in a room outside the council chamber, which housed coffee, a television broadcasting the meeting and several tribal members chatting, while she took the note to Council Chairwoman Terri Henry. 

I sat there for the better part of an hour before council went on a short break and the office manager came back to inform me that my request to enter the chamber had been denied. The council never voted on the request — rather, Henry took a silent poll of members’ opinions on the matter before making the decision to deny the request. 

Having been told by other tribal members that day that a television reporter whose request had also been denied was still allowed to stay in the TV room and film from there, I assumed that the denial referred to my presence in the council chamber specifically rather than in the councilhouse in general. 

But a few minutes later, a police officer appeared at the door and asked me to follow him. When I got up to leave, letting my bag stay next to my chair, he told me I should also bring my things with me. 

At this, the tribal members in the waiting room, as well as Councilmember Teresa McCoy, who was passing by at the time, followed the officer and me out of the building. 

I asked the officer why I was being asked to leave the councilhouse, especially considering that a TV reporter earlier in the day had been allowed to stay. 

The officer merely responded that he was doing as he had been told. McCoy said she was going to head back into council and see if she could get me back in. When I asked the officer whether I could stand on the sidewalk while waiting for an outcome, he instructed me to return to my car. After waiting for about 20 minutes without anyone coming to bring me back in, I left, eventually reporting on the meeting through digital means rather than in person. 

Unlike in U.S. government, in which meetings are open to the public unless they fall within a finite list of exclusions, Cherokee meetings are open only to tribal members. Because the Cherokee newspaper is owned by tribal government and reporters from other media outlets are not typically Cherokee, tribal council is often able to limit which stories get reported. 

Similarly, U.S. laws state that nearly every scrap of paper and every document produced by a public body — again, with some exceptions — is public record. While Cherokee has public records laws, those records are available only to tribal members, not to the press as a whole. 

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