The Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) Board has a Free Speech Problem

Although a public school board isn’t required in Iowa to adopt a public comment period, our school board has, and therefore, should not censor speakers based upon the content of the speakers’ comments. If the board does, the board violates the right of freedom of speech in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

To its credit, the ICCSD Board allows public comment.  It also permits speakers to speak up to three minutes although, in contrast, the Iowa City Council allows public speakers five minutes. Unfortunately, in the eyes of some board members, at least a couple of speakers have apparently been too critical of the board too often.  Originally the board was going to remove public comment from some meetings but backed off after public outcry.

At the beginning of Tuesday (December 10, 2013) night’s school board meeting, board president, Sally Hoeschler, reminded speakers not to disparage staff or employees or presumably board members. My initial response was “Oh, please.” Then I thought that including the Political Science/Civic Literacy and 21st Century Skill components in Iowa’s Core Curriculum is needed since an essential skill is to “Understand participation in civic and political life can help bring about the attainment of individual and public goals.” Of course, Ms. Hoeschler did not remind speakers not to compliment staff, employees or board members.  The bottom line is that people have a right to compliment and criticize their government officials, and the board should not discriminate against speakers based upon the content.

On the board’s agenda Tuesday night was a draft entitled “ICCSD Public Comment Guidelines.” The first part of the document includes language about how the board “mandates a safe and civil atmosphere at district events” and that nobody is supposed to be harassed or discriminated against, etc. (I could write another post about the meeting’s Martin Luther King Day discussion.) The meat of the document shows the board wants—“[t]o promote a positive education environment at Board Meetings and to ensure the respect and dignity due every stakeholder under District policy” and guides us that:

Comments should be related to matters of public concern.”
Comments or expression that are abusive, harassing, bullying, discriminatory, or lewd shall be prohibited.

Speakers who violate the “guidelines” (which are referred to as a “policy” in the draft), are threatened with mandatory sanctions.

Aside from some overly sensitive public officials, a huge problem is that nowhere is “abusive, harassing, bullying, discriminatory, or lewd” comments defined—I guess the board will know it when they hear it although the language strikes me as impermissibly vague.  I’m also unconvinced everyone will agree on exactly how much, if any, “respect and dignity” are “due every stakeholder.” Nor do I believe all will agree about what “matters of public concern are.”

Board member Chris Lynch said he likes the draft and thinks it helps public participation although he didn’t say how. President Hoeschler thinks having a couple of people sign up to speak multiple times is too much. I appreciate frequent public speakers, Phil Hemingway and Julie Van Dyke. Both are passionate about education. Mr. Hemingway received a lot of votes in the last board election, and when the school district is going to ask voters to approve a bond in the not too distant future, I have to wonder what the board is trying to hide by quieting their voices.

I haven’t seen any members of the public become disruptive at the board meetings although I’m raising a bunch of kids so it takes a lot for me to consider a speaker disruptive. I do not know what the board hopes to accomplish with this policy except to squelch its critics. This policy should be dumped quickly, and the board president should cease telling speakers not to disparage employees, staff and others so as not to chill free speech.


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One Response to The Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) Board has a Free Speech Problem

  1. Pingback: Bullying and Public Comment | Education in Iowa

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