PA city school board finds itself in free speech fiasco

The school board in York City is being sued for restricting public comment at a meeting.

By Maura Pennington | Watchdog.org

PHILADELPHIA — If you’re a student at a York city school board meeting, forget your First Amendment rights.

Earlier this month, the central Pennsylvania school district restricted public comment at a meeting to exclude anyone under the age of 18, in an apparent violation of the state’s Sunshine Law, which allows residents to have a reasonable opportunity to voice their concerns at open proceedings.

“The Sunshine Act does not distinguish between adults and children,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel at the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

According to the York Dispatch, the meeting sparked tension because of the impending closure of New Hope Academy Charter School, which the district didn’t renew in 2012.

Students had followed the regulation to pre-register for the public comment portion, but were unable to speak after board Solicitor Jeff Gettle announced they had to be older than 18.

While this may have been a decision to maintain order at a heated meeting, it doesn’t hold up legally.

“There is clear precedent from the Supreme Court holding that students have First Amendment rights, and those rights don’t disappear when they enter a school or participate in a school function. The school board meeting is a public forum for First Amendment purposes, and it’s very unlikely that banning student speech in a public forum based solely on age would survive constitutional muster,” Melewsky said.

No governmental department enforces the Sunshine Law, but residents have the recourse to file a civil lawsuit in the case of violations of free speech. On Tuesday, a teacher and parent in the School District of York City did just that.

Members of the school board couldn’t be reached for comment.

Contat Maura Pennington at mpennington@watchdog.org.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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