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Our Opinion: An invitation to speak, sealed with red tape

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If school board members really wanted to hear from parents, they would’ve thought twice before rolling up the welcome mat and replacing it with a barbed-wire fence.

Your Wilson County Board of Education let you down Monday night when it voted 6-1 to limit those allowed to speak during time reserved for public comment to individuals who sign up three full days in advance.

Before this week’s clumsy power play, anyone could address school board members by simply waiting their turn to talk and stepping up to the podium. Requiring speakers to register will reduce public participation, and that seems to be the board’s aim.

“Any restriction of free speech, even procedural restriction, is a restriction on free speech,” attorney and Wilson parent Rhyan Breen wrote. “If you don’t want to hear what the public wants to say, don’t be a public servant. Public service in a republic means representing your constituents. Representation requires listening even if you don’t want to listen to the message.”

Refusing to listen is what got us here in the first place. During April’s board meeting, Chairwoman Christine Fitch interrupted three speakers and curtailed their comments about a soccer coach’s suspension, abiding by a previous board policy that forbade discussion of school personnel issues.

As we noted in this space, censoring those citizens violated their First Amendment rights. Personnel privacy laws restrict what the school board can say, not what its members can hear, and speakers who are not school officials aren’t subject to any confidentiality requirements. It wasn’t entirely Fitch’s fault, we note in the interest of fairness, as she was following an unconstitutional school board rule.

We brought the matter to Wilson County Schools legal counsel Brian Shaw’s attention. He seemed receptive, and when May’s meeting rolled around, tweaking the public comment policy was listed as an action item on the school board’s agenda.

The new policy eliminates all references to banning the discussion of personnel issues. Instead, it prohibits “obscene or vulgar statements, personal attacks and statements reasonably perceived to be disruptive or imminently threatening to the orderly operation of the meeting.” It also notes that “Any limitation on public comments shall be viewpoint-neutral.”

Contradicting that specificity, the new and not-much-improved Policy 1326 goes on to state that the board chair “will have the responsibility to determine matters of discussion that may be inappropriate under this policy and to rule the speaker out of order, if necessary.”

Such loose language appears to give the school board chair far too much leeway.

“Discretion is the devil’s playground,” said Amanda Martin, attorney for the North Carolina Press Association. “If you give too much latitude to anyone in particular to make decisions about what is and isn’t permitted and you don’t give benchmarks...that’s really problematic.”

The written policy is no longer flagrantly unlawful, but it enables judgment calls that could too easily cross the line into censorship. Perhaps reducing that risk is why the board set up a high hurdle that would-be speakers must clear, which will have the practical effect of reducing participation.

In order to address the school board, members of the public are asked to register by noon “no later than the last school work day prior to the board meeting.” Since the school board meets on Mondays, folks have to register on Fridays.

Speakers can sign up at the Wilson County Schools central office or by emailing publiccomments@wilsonschoolsnc.net. Either way, they’re required to provide their name and address, disclose the subject on which they will speak and provide “a brief explanation of the nature of the item with background information sufficient for the superintendent to provide a reasonable understanding of the matter to members of the board.”

All that red tape may be enough to deter any number of parents and community members who should have the right to address their elected representatives without jumping through hoops.

If school board members care about open government, why are they building barriers to the people’s podium at taxpayer expense? They would be wise to take this problematic policy back to the drawing board and scrap the three-day signup requirement without delay.

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