Welcome to Laurie Goodman's blog. I use this space to share news and opinions about education and schools in Ridgewood, the state of New Jersey and the nation, in addition to other issues I'm personally interested in. I invite you to share your thoughts, feelings, questions or opinions, too, by posting comments on any blog entry. Please observe basic courtesy -- keep your comments focused on issues, no personal attacks or bullying, please. Contact me directly at: lauriegood@mac.com

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Free speech at Board of Ed meetings.

At tonight's Board of Ed meeting, there were a lot of people in the audience (yay!), but because we had been informed that there would be lots of public comment, Mr. Vallerini, (who, by the way, was re-elected as President of the Board for the 09-10 school year), read a statement prior to the public comment portion of the meeting. During those public comments, all of which (I think) addressed the "awarding" of tenure to a particular teacher, one person took the mic to criticize Mr. Vallerini's statement, as he felt the Board was trying to limit free speech.

[I don't have the text of the statement...maybe I'll try to watch the meeting webcast and transcribe it.]

Anyway, first, let me say I'm a big free speech proponent. The statement Mr. Vallerini read was recommended by our lawyer and is primarily to serve three purposes: 1) To explain why Board members don't respond to comments about staff, because it is illegal for us to do so; 2) To inform speakers that they speak at their own risk and open themselves up to defamation issues; 3) To inform that Board policy #1120 says: "Board meetings are not the appropriate forum for the public criticism of individual staff members and such comments will not be entertained."

Now, that policy may be wrong. It may be overly controlling. It may go against the spirit of free speech laws. But the fact that it's in the district policy manual means we are required by law to follow it. If we wanted to revise it, that's another issue.

I can certainly see the Board's (whichever Board first wrote the policy) desire to support its staff and protect them from public attacks (in fact, legislation requires Board members to swear to "support and protect school personnel in proper performance of their duties")...I can see the district's desire to not provide a forum (and share any potential liability) for defamatory speech...but I too am put-off by the overly-protective tone. I'm curious as to why it exists. While I think there are more productive forums for criticism of staff, the American tradition of free and public discourse is important.

(School board trivia: did you know that public comments at Board of Ed meetings are not mandatory according to law? It's my understanding that there is no legal requirement that we allow public comment. I'm guessing -- and obviously I'm no lawyer -- that the Board's ability to regulate public comments is related to this fact.)

Update 3/25/11: I was told by a representative of the New Jersey School Boards Association, back in 2009 when this post first appeared, that public comment was not required by law at BOE meetings. I have since (yesterday) been informed by the Board's attorney that some form of public comment is required, although the amount of time given and the format are up to the Board.

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