One interesting news item that slipped by, relatively under the radar, this past weekend was the implementation of a new rule on meeting decorum by the Bismarck School Board. The impetus for this rule may have been concerning enough, but what remains to be seen is what are the unintended (or intended) consequences of such a rule on the democratic process?
From the May 30, 2014 Bismarck Tribune:
BISMARCK, N.D. — The Bismarck School Board has created a new administrative rule on decorum for public participation in board meetings.
The rule says “civility is expected” and emphasizes that the topic of a speaker has to be related to board issues. It also allows the board to eject a speaker or bar him or her from future meetings for failure to comply with the rules.
The rule was prompted by racially charged comments made by Douglas Sczygelski to the board last month, which officials said had little to do with educational issues.
As referenced in the article, the Bismarck School Board implemented the new administrative rule in response to comments made by Douglas Sczygelski at their April 28, 2014 meeting. The new administrative rule is listed below:
The Board welcomes public participation in School Board meetings. In order to provide for efficient and respectful presentation, the following rules apply to all who wish to speak in the limited public forum at a Board meeting:
1. There shall be an agenda item for public participation at regular Board meetings. The Board President shall call for public participation and shall review rules of decorum;
2. Civility is expected;
3. Comments must be relevant to the Board’s operation of the schools and/or programs;
4. Comments must not be repetitive or harassing in nature;
5. If there is noncompliance with the rules of decorum, the Board President shall inform the speaker of his/her noncompliance and request of him/her compliance with the rules of decorum;
6. If the speaker chooses not to comply, he/she may be ejected from the meeting and/or barred from future Board meetings.
Specifically, Sczygelski was reported by the Bismarck Tribune to have said “I have said in the past that I think blacks are less intelligent than whites,” at this meeting, in what was apparently a rambling dissertation on many topics outside of the realm of education. His comment was in reference to letters written while in the employ of the US Customs and Border Protection agency, which apparently resulted in his termination.
Stupid and ignorant comments? Absolutely, and comments of which the content I will not defend. Did it have anything to do with education? Most definitely not. Had the Bismarck School Board based their new policy on limiting public input to issues pertaining to education in the district, it may have made sense on the surface (not saying it would have been correct). But, it’s pretty clear that the new policy is in place to prevent speech that makes people uncomfortable, as demonstrated by Bismarck Public School Superintendent Tamara Uselman on the night of the meeting in which Sczygelski’s comments occurred.
“My response is this: we discuss education issues here. We don’t discuss hate speech,” Uselman said.
Clearly Sczygelski is an oddball, and his comments had little to do with board business. His comments were wrong both from a racial perspective, and a factual one. Again, I state I do not defend the content of what he said. But, he still had the right to make these comments as the 1st Amendment protects that right to make them. That Amendment also does not include exceptions for the venue or content of the comments. Despite this, the Bismarck School Board has taken the opportunity of these comments to implement a rule which can be used in the future to infringe upon both the free speech rights of citizens, as well as their right to redress grievance with their elected officials.
The most concerning parts of the new policy are 2. Civility is expected and 4. Comments must not be repetitive or harassing in nature. These definitely sound like “reasonable” rules on the surface. But, what is the standard applied to determine what “civility” and “harassing” is or is not? How will a member of the public know, before addressing the board, what is deemed civil/ harassing so they can properly prepare? Will they be required to submit their comments for approval in advance of a meeting?
How will they ever know when they “cross the line”, based on the arbitrary judgement of some elected official, until they are past it? More importantly, how is it the board — as representatives of the people — through their own edict gets to decide what is or is not civil and harassing… or just something that makes them either uncomfortable or unwilling to hear.
I also find concerning part 3. Comments must be relevant to the Board’s operation of the schools and/or programs. While perhaps somewhat less ambiguous than “civility” and “harassing”, it is in conflict with the spirit of public input and comment at meetings of an elected board. Often, citizens are encouraged to approach a board if they have a concern and present them to the board. The Bismarck School Board has now given themselves an out from addressing these concerns, if they choose, by simply only having to find a way to claim a citizen concern or comment is not relevant.
The Bismarck School Board has in essence passed a rule without a clear standard — and thus set up opportunity for abuse on their part — by infringing upon the free speech rights of the people under the auspices of civility and avoidance of harassment. They have also potentially set themselves up for a lawsuit, of which the taxpayers of the Bismarck School District will bear the brunt of.
Rights exist to protect people from the government, not the government from the people. While the Bismarck School District clearly does not, and should not, agree with Sczygelski’s comments, they have no right to enact a policy to freeze out public input based on words like “civility” and “harassment” which have no clear standard defined for them in this policy; and thus which can too easily be used and abused to prevent discussion and discourse in a public forum.