Concord school board loosens proposed public comment policy

Monitor staff
Published: 9/5/2018 11:29:44 AM

The Concord School Board removed language from a proposed policy governing public comments that the ACLU of New Hampshire warned could run afoul of the First Amendment.

The proposed policy on public participation at meetings now focuses more on board procedure than prohibiting “obscene, libelous, defamatory or violent statements.”

Banning types of speech is a questionable practice, American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire’s legal director Gilles Bissonnette told the board through an email to Superintendent Terri Forsten.

“Whether speech is defamatory is an adjudicatory status that is context specific and requires legal analysis that a board is not prepared to evaluate in real time,” he said in August. He had recommended the board only ban speech that is disruptive or else risk violating the First Amendment.

The school board was considering a policy that would have directed complaints regarding individual employees, personnel or students will be directed to the Superintendent. Additionally, speakers would be “required to conduct themselves in a civil manner.”

The language was originally attached to the board’s agenda preparation and dissemination policy. The school board is now proposing a separate policy on public comment.

It states the board “reserves the right to meet and to adjourn or recess a meeting at any time.” Members of the public will be able to speak on topics both on the agenda and off at separate times.

It also includes a new five-minute time limit, an element that divided members of the board during a Tuesday night meeting.

Some felt the policy was too restrictive and inflexible, whereas others thought a provision allowing the board to let someone speak longer could be abused.

“I’m not a fan of setting policies that are restrictive,” said at-large member Clint Cogswell. “It has nothing to do with what someone is saying; if someone goes over, I don’t want to be part of a group that’s saying, ‘You’re off.’ ”

Nathan Fennessy, at-large member and chair of the communications and policy committee, said there had been consideration of allowing the chair of the board or committee to give a speaker more time. However, such a policy would create the risk of viewpoint discrimination, he said.

“If you give it (more time) to someone and not another, now you have a problem with the First Amendment,” he said.

Later, he added: “If someone has the ability to cut someone off, you’re more likely to cut someone off when you don’t like what they’re saying; it’s a natural reaction. ...Whether you want to tell us we’re terrible people for five minutes, that’s your time.”

Member Pam Wicks pointed out residents who have longer statements have the ability to submit emails or written comments to the board, which can be included in the minutes.

The proposed policy will be voted on by the board in October. 

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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