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Free Speech Rights Suspended by Board of Education

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Free Speech Rights Suspended by Board of Education

October 29, 2008 - 16:34

At the end of every board meeting there is a public participation period which is described as follows in a lavender brochure distributed at the board meeting:

A portion of the agenda of each regular meeting is reserved for public discussions. During this time, members of the audience may express opinions or ask questions about any aspect of school district operations or procedures, except personnel. In order to protect the rights of those involved, all personnel matters should be referred to the Superintendent of Schools via the proper channels. Such matters are discussed by the Board in Executive Session.

I asked two board members about this policy and both stated that they were told by the District's lawyers that there was a law that prohibited the discussion of personnel matters in public session. I searched the New York State Code. I could find no such law. I contacted the New York Civil Liberties Union. They stated that there is no such law and that there is no legal requirement that employees of the District cannot be identified at public board meetings. In recent statements, board members have told me that this "privacy" policy extends even to public officials such as the Superintendent of Schools, even when members of the public wish to comment on public statements made by these public figures.

I spoke to several attorneys who specialize in these sorts of things and they tell me that even if there were a claim of "privacy" that claim would have to be made by the private individual not the school district. Further, there is no expectation of privacy for public officials like the Superintendent so privacy does not even apply.

I have repeatedly asked the District to make such a legal argument and they have failed to do so. At the board meeting on October 7, 2008, the President of the School Board, Cindy Babcock-Deutsche stated that she would "seek counsel" on the legal basis for the District's policy but was not present at the next board meeting and has failed to respond directly to me. The reason? Simple! There is no law or legal argument which forms the basis for the District's policy. They made it up to suit their own interests.

The board wants residents of New Rochelle believe that a parent with children attending the public schools in New Rochelle is not permitted by law to speak freely in a public meeting of elected officials, in a public building during the public comment period. I am not aware of any such prohibition on free speech anywhere else in the United States although there may be such restrictions in Iran, North Korea, or China.

It seems to me that the primary purpose of the District's restrictions on free speech is to prevent criticism of the administration and to cover up incidents of malfeasance by teachers and staff. Whatever good may come from protecting the identity of hard-working school teachers and staff, this is outweighed by the public's right to know when staff are engaged in illegal, unethical or improper behavior. Too often this supposed concern for the privacy of teachers and staff has been used as a cover to hush up sexual improprieties, racial incidents, violence and otherwise use public board meetings a public relations platform rather than an opportunity for the community to express genuine concern over problems and failures within the district.