Our school board is considering adopting a policy to regulate how members of the public express themselves at school board meetings. Among other things, the policy would require speakers at the public comments sessions to show “respect and decorum” and would prohibit “abusive, harassing, bullying, discriminatory, or lewd” remarks. At the last school board meeting, I spoke against the policy; this is a rough transcript of what I said.
I think everyone agrees that the board can put limits on how long a person can speak, though as a policy matter I think the board should err on the side of listening more rather than less. I also think that the board can insist that spectators not be disruptive while someone is speaking at public comment – though I think there ought to be some tolerance for audience reaction and applause, etc.
Like others, though, I’m very concerned about any attempt to regulate what people say during public comment. Words like “disrespectful” or “abusive” or “bullying” mean different things to different people. Those terms could easily be applied to controversial or strongly expressed opinions that are protected free speech. If anything, the board should be welcoming dissent and criticism of district policies and practices, because those things help produce better policies in the long run, even if they’re uncomfortable in the short run.
I wanted to make two specific suggestions. First, I think it would be helpful if the board identified specific statements that have been made in the past that would run afoul of this policy. There must be a perception that there’s a real problem being addressed by the policy, but I haven’t heard anyone identify specific comments that ought to have been banned. If we heard actual examples, maybe it would be possible to pinpoint the problem in a way that isn’t as vague and overbroad as the language here. Or it might bring to light that the comments at issue are in fact protected speech of the type that can’t be prohibited, even if it’s offensive. As it is, though, it’s virtually impossible to tell whether a particular comment would violate this policy, which in itself raises free speech concerns.
My second suggestion is to simply have a rule limiting public comment to topics that are germane to school district business. If a comment is germane to school district business, it’s hard to imagine how that comment could be out of bounds. Certainly if someone tries to bring up the superintendent’s private life in a way that has nothing to do with district business, that comment could be fairly ruled out. But criticisms of a board member’s or administrator’s conduct on school issues have to be fair game. In borderline cases the board should still err on the side of permitting comment, but as a policy I don’t think a germaneness rule would be objectionable. The remaining restrictions would just be redundant at that point.
Finally, I’d urge the board to remember that one of the principles supporting rigorous protection of free speech is that the best response to speech that you think is wrong or offensive is not to shut it down but to counter it. If someone resorts to name-calling toward a board member or an administrator, for example, I hope someone else will point out that ad hominem arguments are inherently weak and usually a sign that the speaker has nothing better to offer. Getting bad arguments out in the open and refuting them is a much more effective way of fighting them than forcibly suppressing them is. After all, they’re going to be saying all those things somewhere else and you won’t be there to answer it, so why not get it out and respond to it? I hope that’s one of the principles our kids will learn in school when they study the Constitution.