Our district has a few citizens who don’t mince words when they comment at board meetings. Some of them have taken to naming the names of the district employees who they claim are responsible for specific ongoing problems that the district has had. (Believe it or not, I am not one of those people, at least yet.)
The school board’s response, on the whole, has been to act as if an unwashed anarchist had crashed their afternoon tea. According to the North Liberty Leader, the board would consider eliminating the public comment period altogether, if people can’t be more “respectful.” The board chair said:
The Board expects the community comment time to be a productive and respectful way for community members to voice their concerns about current school district issues to assist the board in making decisions that help our district be the best place possible to educate the students of this community.Seriously? These elected officials will shut down public comment at board meetings if the public isn’t sufficiently “respectful” and “productive”? Is it really the business of an elected body to protect itself, or the community, from public speech that it finds uncomfortable? What are they so afraid of?
When community comments address concerns about district departments or issues and are done so in a timely manner, the information given can be very helpful. It is the School Board’s desire to continue to have community comment as part of future agendas as long as the emphasis on ‘productive’ and ‘respectful’ are adhered to by all participants.
Some board members have suggested that the district might be liable if a speaker at the public meeting defames someone. I’m no expert on that subject, but I’m very, very skeptical that such a claim against the district could succeed, given the First Amendment issues it raises. The government is not ordinarily responsible for the conduct of people who speak in its public forums. (For example, the government is not promoting religion by permitting evangelists to speak in the public square.) Can anyone cite any legal support for the theory that the district would be liable in such a case?
One of the fundamental principles of a democratic society is that free and unrestrained debate on political issues will lead to better policymaking. I would like to think that the people in charge of educating my children were aware of that principle. Unfortunately, there are few institutions that need to relearn that principle more than the school system, where parents and the public are constantly admonished to leave the policymaking to the experts and are encouraged to tiptoe around any disagreement, or drop it entirely, for fear of seeming “unsupportive.” Require everyone to be calm and polite, not to get personal, never to express anger, and never to use strong rhetoric or, God forbid, a “bad word”: a great way to protect the status quo, a lousy way to make good policy.
In my view, our educational system’s discomfort with basic democratic values – unrestrained political debate, personal autonomy, pluralism, federalism, negative liberty, civil liberties, and self-governance, to name a few – is at the root of most of its many problems. Democracy can be messy, disconcerting, even chaotic. But maintaining order is not the only value, or the highest one. Our schools’ embrace of control over freedom at every opportunity is not only harming our kids’ education, it’s creating a nation of people who seem more and more comfortable with authoritarian government with each passing year.
School board members: If people want to rant and rave and name some names, suck it up and let them talk. The world won’t end, and might even improve.
Related posts here and here.