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YouTube Deletes Union School Board Video Over Mask Comments, Then Reverses Itself

 Union County Public Schools got this notice that last week's meeting video contained medical misinformation.
Becky Swiger
Union County Public Schools
Union County Public Schools got this notice that last week's meeting video contained medical misinformation.

Parents’ arguments against face masks for students led YouTube to delete a Union County school board video last week, saying it violated the company’s policy on COVID-19 misinformation. Thursday night YouTube reversed itself, but experts say the case highlights questions about free speech and public video archives.

Union County Public Schools started streaming board meetings on YouTube in 2014 during a redistricting process that stirred up public interest.

 The UCPS YouTube channel serves as its video archive.
The UCPS YouTube channel serves as its video archive.

The YouTube channel also serves as the district’s video archiving system. Spokesperson Tahira Stalberte said it worked fine until last week.

"One of my colleagues was working on our monthly newsletter and she went to grab the link for it and she let me know that the meeting had been removed," Stalberte said.

A bit of clicking led to the realization that the two-and-a-half hour meeting video had been taken down because YouTube concluded it violated community standards on COVID-19 misinformation.

The meeting began with 30 minutes for members of the public to speak. Sarah Hamilton of Matthews opened with a plea to stop making kids wear face masks.

"I am one of thousands of parents across the country stepping up to call out adults who have put our children through unjustified, unethical masking," she said. "This is a lie. It is being used as a weapon to create and instill fear, and it must stop."

Hamilton went on to say studies show masks are not effective in preventing transmission of the coronavirus and have “adverse psychological effects.”

Half a dozen others sounded similar themes, including Michele Cameron of Waxhaw: "Breathing your own waste all day long, five days a week for eight hours, is dangerous and criminal."

The board then discussed concerns about the state's delay in updating COVID-19 safety guidelines to allow students to stop wearing masks at recess and voted on its budget.

Stalberte says the school district doesn’t know whether someone complained about the video or YouTube flagged it independently. The district has an audio recording of the meeting, she says, but hadn’t been backing up videos.

"We then submitted an appeal and it was rejected," she said.

Britney Bouldin was one of the speakers at last week’s school board meeting, though she didn’t talk about COVID-19. She says she shared the meeting link on Facebook, only to have someone tell her it was gone. She says she found that bizarre, because other people had made similar comments at other meetings.

"I don’t think the school board had any way of knowing that this would happen because it’s so ridiculous, right? Like, you would never imagine that a company would take down a school board meeting, of all things," she said.

National Debate On COVID-19 Differences

YouTube's decision thrust the Union County school board into a national debate on the boundary between free speech and technology companies’ responsibility to squelch dangerous discourse.

In April, YouTube, which is owned by Google, took down video of a COVID-19 roundtable hosted by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The company took issue with views voiced by DeSantis and three scientists he selected for the panel. According to news reports, they all said there was no need for schoolchildren to wear masks.

Martin Kulldorff, a professor at Harvard Medical School, was on the DeSantis panel and says he was stunned that it was taken down. When told about the Union County case, Kulldorff said at least a governor or a Harvard professor has other means to communicate with the public.

"I think it’s very disturbing that regular people, for example at a school board meeting, or somebody else writing something on Facebook, that they are censored, because everyone should have the right to express their views and discuss these things," he said Thursday.

YouTube community guidelines say content that contradicts local health authorities’ or the World Health Organization’s medical information about COVID-19 “poses a serious risk of egregious harm.” Claims that masks are dangerous or ineffective at preventing the transmission of COVID-19 are cited as an example of content that will be removed.

But leading health professionals don't all agree on having children wear masks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States says everyone over 2 should wear masks.

But the World Health Organization says that children ages 5 years and under should not be required to wear masks. The WHO says masking for children ages 6-11 is based on several factors, including the level of transmission in an area and the “impact of wearing a mask on learning and psychosocial development.”

Kulldorff says those different opinions show why tech companies should allow voices to be heard.

"It’s very important for those who think differently from me, whether they are scientists or journalists or citizens, that they are allowed to express their thinking on these matters," he said.

Ceding Power To Silicon Valley

Brooks Fuller, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, says the Union County case serves as a warning to the growing number of public bodies that rely on private tech companies to stream their meetings.

"When public bodies rely on third-party social media platforms out of Silicon Valley they do cede a lot of power to those platforms in terms of content moderation and storing and retention of their records," he said.

 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools archives its meetings on Facebook.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools archives its meetings on Facebook.

A quick check of government websites in the Charlotte region shows Cabarrus County commissioners and Gaston, Cabarrus and Iredell-Statesville schools also direct people to their YouTube channel for archived meeting videos. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools streams on YouTube and Facebook. CMS archived its own videos through the 2016-17 school year. For videos after that, people are steered to Facebook.

Fuller notes that North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law does not require public bodies to livestream meetings or create video archives.

"But once they create a record of their public meetings those become minutes of those meetings," he said. "And those are required to be retained permanently by the North Carolina Archives."

He said Union County’s audio recording also meets the legal requirement for minutes. He says the real lesson for public bodies is that "they have to be really careful when using third-party companies to make sure that if they put a record up on a third-party platform they have the ability to retain a copy of the record locally."

Three Strikes, You're Out

Stalberte, the Union County schools spokesperson, says that’s exactly what the district will start doing. And officials are now aware that additional violations of YouTube standards will bring penalties ranging from a one-week suspension to permanent removal.

 UCPS got this warning about violating YouTube's community guidelines.
Becky Swiger
Union County Public Schools
UCPS got this warning about violating YouTube's community guidelines.

"And so at this time we are just making sure that it doesn’t happen again," she said, "but it depends on what content is discussed at the meeting."

Thursday night brought one more twist: After WFAE asked YouTube to explain its decision, the company reviewed the case and restored the video. A spokesperson said the removal was a mistake.

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Updated: May 13, 2021 at 9:27 PM EDT
Updated at 9:30 p.m. May 13 to reflect YouTube's reversal.
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.
Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.