The Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) recently launched its $107,000 ThoughtExchange program, an online communication tool by which a large number of participants can make their opinions known on various issues affecting ICCSD.1 Through ThoughtExchange, ICCSD asks participants to review and assign stars to the thoughts you value to help us [ICCSD] get a sense of the shared priorities in our schools and community. Participating stakeholders are informed of the following:
The major problem is that the “thoughts” shown on ThoughtExchange are controlled and censored by ICCSD. Indeed, the district informs participants of the following:
For example, here is an example of an actual thought posted on ThoughtExchange, which illustrates that whomever submitted this thought had a positive view of ICCSD’s Superintendent Steve Murley and two of ICCSD’s board members.
The problem, of course, is that the district is a governmental body and public citizens have a First Amendment right to be critical, and even disparaging and rude, to and about public officials. Further, ICCSD promoted ThoughtExchange as a forum for community engagement so this censorship based upon viewpoint detracts from the robust and open discussion that should occur in a community engagement about schools. Also problematic is that the anonymous submitter of this thought could even have been one of the individuals named. This censorship of speech is an invitation to a lawsuit by a civil liberties group or others who protect First Amendment rights.
The bottom line is that removing a comment, positive or negative, about a public official or matter of public concern from a supposedly public forum is wrong.
So what should the board do about this mess? If it is too late to get our money spent on ThoughtExchange back and to instead use the funds to better address children’s needs, the board should, at a minimum, adopt a policy and procedure to prevent the administration from curtailing or banning criticism about public officials. At the very least, the board should not allow those who are the likely recipients of criticism to have the authority to remove such criticism from the public view.