Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Should the school board regulate public comment at board meetings?

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.


Karen W said...

Excellent points, Chris.

It is disappointing to me how much of the public debate revolves around protecting some people from feeling discomfort or intimidation when other people express opinions they disagree with.

I think two things you have said (here and on Twitter) cannot be repeated often enough:

Strong advocacy and criticism are not "bullying" and the remedy for speech we don't like is more speech--not enacting speech codes.

Julie VanDyke said...


Good Morning Board Directors:

Apparently, somebody who approved last meeting's minutes draft placed on the agenda for approval at tonight's meeting forgot the most uncivil, abusive, dramatic event of the meeting. Specifically, they seem to have attempted to erase from the written historical record the FACT that Board Director Jeff McGinness singled me out by name during the agenda item discussion, after public comment was no longer allowed, shouted that I was the reason the new guidelines are needed, used profanity, and made slanderous accusations about me based on hearsay. Board Director McGinness committed this behavior unacceptable from an elected official which including shouting, calling out a non-elected, non-district parent specifically by name in an abusive and almost violent manner, used profanity, and blamed the parent for problems caused by the current board president and past board president's discriminatory inconsistency in the manner in which they treat public speakers, i.e., some members of the public are allowed to shout, boo, hiss etc. at other speakers at the microphone (where the podium used to be) without public rebuke, while others are not.

Also missing from the minutes is the FACT that Board President Sally Hoelscher did nothing to stop an attack initiated by a seated, elected board member, on a district parent. Instead the Board President sat there smiling during the incident instead of controlling the meeting and her subordinate board member, then denied the community member an opportunity to respond to the personal attack.

At the board meeting tonight, 2/25/2014, please pull the meeting minutes from the consent agenda items and discuss EXACTLY HOW Mr. McGinness's aggressive, shouting attack at an audience member he singled out personally by name, his abusive and, as he knows, discriminatory on many levels, attack which went on at length, un-restrained by any other board member, or the Board President in charge of the meeting REALLY demonstrates Mr. McGinness' statement that the guidelines are, "not just about setting policy; it is about setting decorum for the community." How did McGinness's behavior set an example for decorum? Please also discuss the board president's failure to control McGinness' vicious personal attack on an audience member, whom he shouted at by name, two by name actually, fosters McGinness' statement that "The Board needs to set a culture that encourages communication and is inviting for all to speak and not be fearful of being attacked or shouted down."

Board Director Jeff McGinness' extremely uncivilized, unethical, slanderous, abusive, and discriminatory attack on a seated member of the audience, and the President Hoelscher's lack of attempt to regain control of the meeting from him, is missing from the meeting minutes. Mr. McGinness, President Hoelscher, and every board member that allowed his attack to go on at length, without any attempt to stop it have collectively violated every conceivable interpretation of decorum, civility, and courtesy 5 of them (Lynch, Swesey, Hoelscher, Kirschling, and McGinness) insist must be codified in guidelines expected of public attendees and speakers. Not only does it appear board directors violated their own policy and guidelines, but, in my opinion, Mr. McGinness's behavior was arguably a violation of board policy on conduct.

If you are going to continue this misguided, and potentially litigious direction using the "guidelines" to limit or take away some public speaker's first amendment rights in a discriminatory and inconsistent application to sanction public audience members, please plan to add a section to the guidelines that set out the process and sanctions to be enforced equally against board members who violate them, attacking members of the public, and board presidents who allow it to go on.

Mrs. VanDyke

Julie VanDyke said...

Not only did they not pull the minutes from the agenda to correct them and document Jeff McGinness's personal attack on Phil and I by name, he was even the board director that moved to approve them without change...yeah, no conflict of interest there...and apparently, board directors are not held to their own policies.
-Julie VanDyke