Groups ask Wake school board not to limit comments

Posted April 30, 2010 12:34 p.m. EDT
Updated April 30, 2010 6:58 p.m. EDT

Wake County Public School System

— Several civil rights groups on Friday asked the Wake County Board of Education to reconsider a proposed policy that would prevent members of the public from criticizing school board members during public meetings.

In a letter to school board members, the American Civil Liberties Union, the state chapter of the NAACP, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights, the N.C. Justice Center and Legal Aid of North Carolina said that the policy would violate people's free-speech rights.

A school board committee approved the policy two weeks ago, and the full board is expected to vote on it next Tuesday.

A provision in the proposed policy requires speakers at school board meetings to "refrain from personal attacks and insults directed at the board, staff or other members of the public."

"Who gets to define personal attack? My personal attack might be very different from your personal attack," said Katherine Parker, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina. "That kind of vague language that really censors people's speech is something the ACLU is always going to be concerned about, and our coalition partners are also concerned about as well."

The groups contend that a separate provision of the policy that allows the board chairman to expel anyone who disrupts a meeting should be enough to prevent public comments from getting out of hand, the groups said in the letter. Any limits on people's comments beyond that would be unconstitutional, they said.

"Comments that go directly to an elected school board member's job performance are protected speech, not personal attacks," the groups wrote in the letter. "The new policy limiting 'personal attacks' will likely result in impermissible viewpoint discrimination, especially as it is clear from both the language of the policy as well as from past actions of this board that speech complimenting board members will not be prohibited."

Recent board meetings have included heated comments over the board's decision to drop a policy that assigns students to achieve socio-economic diversity in Wake County schools.

School board Chairman Ron Margiotta and others have raised concerns about the angry public comments, and Margiotta has come under fire for a comment he made that compared members of the audience with animals.

The school board also has started issuing tickets for meetings, saying overflow crowds violated fire codes, and placed time limits on people's comments.

Margiotta said he wants the school board's attorney to review the arguments made in the letter. He said he doesn't like being criticized in public but said he understands that people have the right to share their opinions.

"The greatest thing about where we live in this country is the ability, especially on a local level, to tell officials what we think they're doing wrong," Parker said.