YouTube removes Shawnee Mission school board meeting video that included parents’ debunked mask claims

The Shawnee Mission Board of Education streams its meetings live on YouTube and then archives them on the video-sharing platform. YouTube took down the video of Monday's meeting, giving "medical misinformation" as the reason. During the meeting, several parents aired false claims about masks as they urged the district to roll back its mask policy. File photo.

YouTube has removed the video of Monday’s Shawnee Mission School District board of education meeting, proceedings that included a number of parents making false or misleading claims about masks when they addressed the board during public comment.

What happened: In its message to the district, YouTube cited “medical misinformation” as the reason for the video being taken down and warned the district that if there are future violations of YouTube’s community standards, the district’s account could be suspended.

The video-sharing giant did not give any specific examples of what may have prompted the action.

But during the public comment portion of the meeting, several speakers who identified themselves as parents in the district raised false claims about masks as they urged the board to drop the requirement that masks be worn inside district buildings.

Their comments included debunked claims that masks cause hypoxia, a dangerous decrease in oxygen levels, and also that masks are ineffective at stopping the spread of the coronavirus. (More information about how these claims have been disproven can be found here and here.)

The district’s response: The video of Monday’s meeting, which also included a lengthy discussion about the district’s budget and several votes on construction contracts related to a recently passed bond issue, is now offline.

Shawnee Mission communications manager David Smith said the district would repost the video without the public comments portion and is also considering appealing YouTube’s decision.

Students and teachers are still required to wear masks inside SMSD buildings. The CDC still recommends masks be worn in school settings because most children are unvaccinated, and those 11 and younger are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. File photo.

He said the district is concerned about the implications for continuing to allow public comment at future meetings.

“This could impact our ability to post to YouTube, which would shut off our ability to broadcast meetings,” Smith wrote in an email Thursday to the Shawnee Mission Post. “It’s not pleasant to listen to speakers sharing medical misinformation, but when their freedom of speech threatens the public access of the entire community, that is a problem.”

YouTube’s policy: YouTube has a number of “community guidelines” that aim to govern the content uploaded to the site.

These guidelines include trying to limit harassment or bullying, hate speech and violent or graphic content.

YouTube also has a specific set of guidelines for “COVID-19 medical misinformation.” 

Among other guidelines, the company urges users not to post content that includes, “Claims that wearing a mask is dangerous or causes negative physical health effects,” or “Claims that masks do not play a role in preventing the contraction or transmission of COVID-19.”

It’s unclear how the district’s board meeting video came to YouTube’s attention.

The company says it has “tasked over 10,000 people with detecting, reviewing, and removing content that violates our guidelines,” but users can also report content to YouTube directly.

Free speech concerns: One of the commenters at the board meeting Monday was Kansas state Sen. Mike Thompson, a Republican from Shawnee serving his first full term.

“I’m here on behalf of countless parents who have emailed me, contacted me at the state capitol, to express their concern that these [mask] mandates are going too long,” Thompson said Monday. “Fourteen months ago, it made sense, but over the course of the last year, new evidence substantiates that the science you’ve relied on is not that good. You can find all kinds of reasons why these masks are detrimental to the health of kids.”

The CDC still recommends masks be worn in schools because the vast majority of children remain unvaccinated and can be infected or spread the disease.

In an email Thursday, Thompson told the Post he was “disappointed” YouTube took down the video.

“The whole purpose of the public comment portion of the meeting is to allow those whose tax dollars fund the operation of the school to have a say,” Thompson said in his email. “And it allows parents a course of action if they disagree with the board’s decisions.  The 1st Amendment  of the U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention ‘fact checkers’ as being the gateway to free speech.”

He also noted that, while YouTube as a private company has a right to enforce its own policies, he was not aware of any proceedings of the Kansas Legislature, which often deals with the same issues of COVID-19, masks and public health restrictions, being taken down.

Conflict over masks: Monday’s school board meeting also included a demonstration by about 30 people outside the district’s Center for Academic Achievement, urging Shawnee Mission to drop or relax its rule that masks be worn inside its buildings.

Some districts around the country, including more than 50 in Wisconsin, have started dropping their mask rules after the CDC said fully vaccinated individuals can go unmasked in most situations.

But Shawnee Mission officials, as well as leaders in the three other public school districts in northern Johnson County, have maintained that since most of their students are not yet vaccinated, mask rules will remain in place for now.

Shawnee Mission, like other local districts, also allows for students and their families to request medical exemptions from wearing masks at school.

Following the public comments Monday, Superintendent Mike Fulton said the district’s mask policy would remain unchanged through the end of the school year on Thursday, May 27.