Simple rules for public speaking

John Krull

Years ago, when I was still a young journalist, I covered an Indianapolis Public Schools board meeting.

It was in a time of high drama for IPS. Funds were short. The board and the superintendent were considering closing some schools and either converting or merging others.

Such moves always have dramatic impacts on neighborhoods and people’s lives.

This board meeting was more heated than most. To keep the proceedings moving along, the board limited public comments from each concerned citizen scheduled to speak to five minutes.

One angry young Black man started his remarks by demanding that the board fire the superintendent.

The board president, a middle-aged white man, banged down the gavel and said he would not tolerate any “personal attacks” on the superintendent or board members. The angry young man continued by citing the reasons he thought the superintendent had failed at his job.

Again and again, the board president brought the gavel down and interrupted the speaker.

By the time the five minutes had passed, the young man was only halfway through his remarks. The board president ordered him to stop. When the young man didn’t, the board president ordered security to pull the young man away from the microphone.

The meeting proceeded.

Then, out of nowhere, the angry young man showed up on the stage with the board members. He yelled that the board had to fire the superintendent. A board member, another middle-aged white man, stood up to grapple with the angry young man before security separated the two and led the young man away.

He was arrested.

Afterward, I wrote a piece tearing into everyone involved.

I said the board president was wrong to try to keep the young man from criticizing the superintendent. A school superintendent is a public official paid with public funds. Any citizen has the right to criticize the performance of any public official any time.

But I also said the young man was wrong to go up on the stage and physically threaten the superintendent and board members. The moment he did that, he crossed a line and should have been arrested.

At the next board meeting, the angry young man’s sister read the same statement, word for word, that the board president had interrupted with his gavel. She made it through the remarks—the demand for the superintendent’s dismissal and the reasons for that demand—in a little more than three minutes.

The meeting then went on. So did life.

I’ve thought of that meeting as I’ve watched the displays of spurious outrage certain Republican members of Congress have offered over Attorney General Merrick Garland’s measured memo on providing guidelines for safety and expression at school board meetings across the country.

Stripped of its legalese—lawyers just love passive voice—what Garland’s memo said is what I said years ago.

People have a right to speak their minds.

They don’t have a right to threaten or intimidate.

That might sound like both good common sense and solid constitutional law to most people—but not apparently to some conservatives who now style themselves as absolutists when it comes to the First Amendment.

Really, folks, the rules here are not that tough.

Everyone has a right to speak. No one has a right to threaten or assault.

If we all follow these rules, the meetings will go on. And so will life.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].