TOPEKA, Kan. — Local school boards in Kansas are violating people’s free speech rights with policies that restrict public comments, the American Civil Liberties Union’s state chapter argues as it pushes a Kansas City-area district to change its rules.
The ACLU of Kansas first objected to the Shawnee Mission district’s policy for open forums at board meetings in a letter in May. The letter came after the board’s then-president told a parent he couldn’t criticize another school board member by name over questions about whether the board member had a conflict of interest in voting on a contract.
The board for the district, the state’s third largest, adopted a new policy in November that requires speakers participating in the open forum to make comments in a “positive” and “constructive way.” The policy says complaints against individual school board members or individual employees must be submitted in writing to the superintendent or board president.
The new policy prompted a second letter earlier this month, and Lauren Bonds, the ACLU of Kansas’ legal director, said the group is waiting for a response after three newly elected board members take office in January.
She said other districts have “praise only” policies that the ACLU believes violate free-speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, citing Topeka and Wichita as examples. But Bonds said the ACLU views Shawnee Mission’s as the most restrictive.
“It’s an ongoing problem, just making sure that there’s not suppression of speech and people are allowed to criticize and question the government in public forums that are designed to be a place to speak about these issues,” Bonds said.
She said the ACLU hopes to reach an agreement with the Shawnee Mission district that avoids a lawsuit and creates a policy for other districts to emulate.
KCUR-FM reports that there is no tally of how many of the state’s 286 school boards prohibit speakers from airing grievances about employees or board members in public.
But Angie Stallbaumer, policy specialist and staff attorney at the Kansas Association of School Boards, said it isn’t unusual for boards to set some rules for comments.
Protecting privacy is a key motivation for doing so, she said. In Shawnee Mission, board Vice President Brad Stratton indicated that it will balance free-speech and privacy rights in reviewing the ACLU’s concerns.
Topeka’s policy requires complaints about the superintendent or other employees to be submitted in writing to the superintendent, school board president or clerk. Wichita’s policy doesn’t permit “attacks” on the “personal integrity, character, or competency” of employees or students but allows such comments to be made in closed-door sessions.
Stallbaumer noted that school boards are allowed to set reasonable restrictions on the time place and manner of comments — and aren’t required to have open forums at all.
“The time for public comments is something that the boards are undertaking voluntarily,” she said.
But Bonds said the policies can’t restrict the content of the speech and school boards have been doing that by preventing criticism of their members or district employees.
“If they are going to make it available, they have to allow equal access for both sides to speak,” she said.