Our Opinion: Schools' policy stifles speech at board meetings

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A parent and a retired teacher who wanted to express support for embattled Fike High School girls soccer coach Toni Varacchi were silenced at this week’s school board meeting, but it’s the rules — not the speakers — that were out of order.

Marilee Williford, whose daughter is a senior co-captain of the Lady Golden Demons, and Sara Robbins, a longtime educator, were interrupted repeatedly during their comments to the Wilson County Board of Education.

Chairwoman Christine Fitch told those in attendance Monday night that personnel matters should not be discussed during time reserved for public comment.

Varacchi has been suspended with pay while Wilson County Schools investigates a complaint filed by Ken and Kelly Barnes, who allege their daughter, freshman soccer player Parker Barnes, was mistreated during a practice drill.

Both speakers were stifled while praising Varacchi and voicing concern for the players. Neither attempted to say anything negative about the young student-athlete or her family. Yet even positive comments about a veteran coach and athletic director were deemed too controversial for board members to hear.

Wilson County Schools has a rigid rule, Policy Code 1326.2, concerning public comments. We believe it’s blatantly unconstitutional.

“Discussions regarding particular individual employees, litigation, student records or other matters which may be required to be kept confidential shall not be discussed in the public address setting,” the policy states. “The Chairman will have the responsibility to determine matters of discussion that may be inappropriate and to rule the speaker out of order, if necessary.”

Legal scholars say such restrictions violate the First Amendment. We agree.

Regular meetings of elected representative bodies are considered public forums. Officials can set a uniform time limit for each speaker, but imposing content-based restrictions — let alone deciding on the fly what people can and cannot say — is unlawful.

We checked with David L. Hudson Jr., a law professor at Vanderbilt University and ombudsman at the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center. He said the school board is on shaky ground.

“A public comment period at a public school board meeting is a designated public forum,” Hudson said in an email to The Wilson Times. “Thus, content-based restrictions on speech in such a forum are problematic and probably unconstitutional. Government officials often try to shut down speech that they don’t want to hear. I think the parents should be able to voice their opinions.”

Officials chairing public bodies are allowed to curtail comments that are threatening, profane or obscene, and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose precedent is binding in North Carolina, ruled in 2001 that boards can prohibit personal attacks during public comment as long as such a policy is content-neutral.

Those exceptions don’t apply here. Fitch’s stated reason for cutting speakers off was that Varacchi’s suspension is a personnel matter.

Personnel privacy laws prevent school officials from discussing the coach’s case, but speakers who are not employees of Wilson County Schools have no legal obligation to stay silent. Neither do state laws that restrict what board members can say limit what they are able to hear.

“Parents have no obligation under personnel statutes,” said Amanda Martin, general counsel for the North Carolina Press Association. “They do not have the authority, in my opinion, to censor what parents say. If they want to discuss what they have heard, they have some latitude to go into closed session.”

Wilson County’s blanket ban on discussions regarding individual employees means a parent can’t congratulate a classroom teacher for earning a grant or winning an award. Since such recognitions are commonplace, it’s evident that the policy is selectively enforced to squelch controversy.

We’re inclined to view the school board’s censorship as a regrettable mistake rather than a willful violation of speakers’ First Amendment rights. When it comes to personnel matters, school officials are often careful to the point of being squeamish.

Each elected school board member — Chairwoman Fitch, Vice Chairman Henry Mercer, Debora Powell, Velma Barnes, Beverly Boyette, Gary Farmer and Robin Flinn — bears responsibility for bringing board rules in line with the Bill of Rights.

Monday night’s muzzling of citizen speakers was an embarrassment. The Wilson County Board of Education cannot allow this to happen again.