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Our Opinion: Censorship calls for policy change on school board

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Johnston County’s school board chairman censored a concerned citizen’s remarks last week, enforcing a ban on discussion of personnel matters that a neighboring county scrapped last year after learning it was unconstitutional.

Reginald Holley had submitted a written statement for prior review as the Johnston County Board of Education requires, but he redrafted his message before the May 14 meeting and distributed a revised copy after taking the podium. Chairman Mike Wooten prevented him from fully sharing his concerns.

“Mr. Holley, there are personnel issues in this letter,” Wooten said. “I’ll let you address the board, but you can’t address the names of the personnel in open session.”

Wooten called a five-minute break to scrub the name of one former principal and a reference to another from Holley’s remarks.

Holley, a member of the Johnston County Education Summit think tank, wanted to voice the group’s concern that Superintendent Ross Renfrow sidelined these two African American administrators by taking them out of their schools and assigning them to central office jobs.

As the Johnstonian News reported Feb. 6, the school board requires speakers to sign up 48 hours before scheduled monthly meetings and provide their remarks in writing. The board forbids discussion of personnel matters, which appears to be a willful misinterpretation of state law.

N.C. General Statute 160A-68 requires government agencies to keep most personnel information confidential. Notably, school employees’ names and the offices to which they’re assigned — a key detail flagged in Holley’s remarks — are matters of public record.

The personnel privacy law is a restriction on school system employees and school board members that doesn’t apply to the general public, explained Amanda Martin, a Raleigh media law attorney who serves as general counsel for the North Carolina Press Association.

School board attorney Jimmy Lawrence defended the board’s policy in February, but he failed to offer a legal justification. That’s because there simply isn’t one. A law limiting what school officials can say places no restrictions on what they can hear.

Content-based restrictions on citizen speech during a public board meeting violate the First Amendment’s free speech clause. Even if the state’s personnel privacy law for school officials applied to parents and community members — which it plainly doesn’t — the Bill of Rights trumps a state statute.

Johnston County should follow in the footsteps of Wilson County, whose school board rescinded its ban on speakers discussing personnel matters in May 2018 after The Wilson Times alerted it to the First Amendment conflict. That school board now champions open government, while Johnston’s is doubling down on unlawful censorship.

Holley would have a strong case if he chose to sue the Johnston County Board of Education in federal court. We hope that isn’t necessary. Taxpayers would foot the bill for Johnston County Public Schools’ litigation costs. And if the school board’s willing to waste your money to try to silence school stakeholders, its members have no business representing you.

Wooten and Renfrow ought to seek a second opinion. They could consult with the Raleigh firm of Schwartz & Shaw, which specializes in education law and advised the Wilson County school board to abandon an identical policy. They could also request an advisory opinion from Attorney General Josh Stein, whose N.C. Department of Justice provides legal advice to state and local government officials.

Johnston County parents and community members deserve better than censorship. That’s why we’re printing Reginald Holley’s remarks in full as a letter to the editor in this week’s edition of the Johnstonian News.

We’re also asking our readers to call, write and email their school board members. Tell them to change their policy and stop violating speakers’ First Amendment right to free speech.

CONTACT YOUR SCHOOL BOARD

• Chairman Mike Wooten, 224 Cedar Springs Drive, Princeton, NC, 27569, 919-934-6032, ext. 7371, pwooten883@aol.com

• Vice Chairwoman Peggy Smith, 202 Stancil Road, Angier, NC, 27501, 919-934-6032, ext. 7372, psmith@campbell.edu

• Teresa Grant, 8804 Crestwood Court, Garner, NC, 27529, 919-934-6032, ext. 7373, teresagrant@johnston.k12.nc.us

• Ronald Johnson, 423 Westminster Drive, Clayton, NC 27520, 919-934-6032, ext. 7374, ronjon1983@msn.com

• Terri Sessoms, P.O. Box 449, Smithfield, NC 27577, 919-934-6032, ext. 7375, terrisessoms@johnston.k12.nc.us

• Todd Sutton, 10298 Old Beulah Road, Kenly, NC 27524, 919-934-6032, ext. 7376, toddsutton@johnston.k12.nc.us

• Tracie Zukowski, 180 Running Springs Court, Clayton, NC 27527, 919-934-6032, ext. 7377, traciezukowski@johnston.k12.nc.us

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