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Concord school board public comment policy to be reviewed again after ACLU voiced concerns



Monitor staff
Tuesday, August 07, 2018

A proposed Concord school board policy that would restrict certain public comments at meetings will be reviewed again, but not necessarily because First Amendment advocates said it could violate free speech laws.

Several school board members said Monday night they think the policy is fine the way it is.

Board members focused more on defending the proposed five-minute time limit on speech than on concerns raised by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire.

“I think this is fine and I think it is a non-restrictive policy, and in fact, we want to encourage people to come and speak, both on agenda items and non-agenda items,” board member Chuck Crush said.

“I think somehow, the message got out there of, ‘What? I can’t come and complain about a school board policy? I can’t come and vent about an operational issue at the school board?’ ” he continued. “That’s certainly not the case.”

The proposed policy states that “obscene, libelous, defamatory or violent statements” would be considered out of order and “not tolerated.” It also asks that complaints “regarding individual employees, personnel or students ... be directed to the Superintendent,” and not the school board.

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for ACLU-NH, said he emailed feedback on the policy to the superintendent, but had not heard back as of Tuesday. Board members said they were sending the policy back to the communications committee to give the public more of a chance to chime in with their thoughts.

Nathan Fennessy, chairman of Communications and Policy Committee, said the board had received some feedback on the proposed changes, but did not say what that feedback was.

Board member Jim Richards said the fact that the school board meetings are broadcast on ConcordTV made him concerned about monitoring the meeting’s content.

“While we are on cable TV, I think that saying libelous, defamatory or violent statements are out of order and we shouldn’t tolerate it,” Richards said.

Bissonnette said he told the school board in an email that it was not “best practice” to attempt to ban libelous or defamatory speech.

“Whether speech is defamatory ... requires legal analysis that a board is not prepared to evaluate in real time,” he said via email. He recommended that the board focus only on banning speech that actually causes a disruption.

Bissonnette also said the board should make clear that the policy does not encompass “criticism of the Superintendent’s performance, the performance of employees within the Superintendent’s Office, as well as the Superintendent’s management of personnel.”

Board member Jennifer Patterson said the communications committee had tried to make the new policy less restrictive than the existing policy, which encourages members of the public to contact the superintendent prior to the meeting if they wish to speak. The current policy also states that board members reserve the right to limit discussion to agenda items only – something else Patterson said the committee found too restrictive.

“We actually agreed as a committee that that should be taken out of the current policy because it seemed restrictive,” Patterson said. “Typically, we don’t get a lot of public comment. We actually want to encourage public comment more than we want to restrict it.”

Maureen Redmond-Scura, a member of the communications committee, said the policy was modeled after the New Hampshire School Board Association’s policy, which had been recommended.

“They indicated that if we did not have a standard policy, that we would be setting ourselves up for issues in the future,” Redmond-Scura said.

Crush said he felt comfortable voting to pass the changes on Monday, but waiting until the board’s September meeting might help clear up “misinformation.”

Concord School District Superintendent Terri Forsten suggested the board move to have that communications committee take another look at the policy during its meeting on Wednesday.

“There are some pieces in here that we may want to revisit,” she said.

(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, lwillingham@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @LeahMWillingham.)