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Our Opinion: School board allows uncensored remarks, but won’t fix policy

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The Johnston County Board of Education righted a wrong last week when it allowed previously censored public comments to be read, but it also compounded its mistake by doubling down on unlawful and unnecessary rules.

During the June 11 meeting, Robert O’Neal read the full text of a Johnston County Education Summit statement that fellow summit member Reggie Holley sought to deliver on May 14. School board Chairman Mike Wooten heavily redacted the statement last month, removing discussion of African American former principals who were sidelined into less desirable central office jobs.

Fast-forward four weeks, and Wooten’s changed his tune. While he told Holley in May that “you can’t address the names of personnel in open session,” he allowed those names to be read last week and now says the school board censored the statement when Holley spoke because it hadn’t been submitted 48 hours before the meeting.

“Names are OK as long as it’s not specific personnel file matters,” Wooten said. “The reason he was not allowed was because he did not meet policy procedures in submitting the statement he was going to comment on.”

In May, naming school system employees from the people’s podium was strictly verboten. In June, it’s allowed, though the board reserves the right to censor anything that appears in employee records even though members of the general public can’t access those records. Herein lies the problem with unwritten rules.

Wooten previously told us the ban on discussing personnel matters was board policy. We filed a public records request for all school board policies on public comments and received no documentation of the personnel restriction. We can only conclude that the Johnston County Board of Education’s members are making it up as they go along. It’s an ad-lib policy, amateur hour on the dais. How humiliating for the state’s seventh-largest school district.

Prohibiting speakers from discussing school staff members is a content-based restriction on citizen speech in a designated public forum. It’s a violation of the First Amendment’s free speech clause, and the school board in neighboring Wilson County rescinded a similar rule in May 2018 after its attorney agreed that it’s presumptively unconstitutional.

We reached out to Vice Chairwoman Peggy Smith, a tenured professor of education at Campbell University who ought to understand the legal jeopardy in which her board finds itself. She offered a polite — if unintentionally Orwellian — response: “The censorship was not censorship but protecting the rights of personnel not to be discussed in public.”

No such “rights” exist under federal or North Carolina law. When we asked that she pose the issue to her colleagues at Campbell’s top-flight law school, she seemed to brush off the suggestion and instead deferred to school board attorney Jimmy Lawrence. Smith’s constituents deserve more than this incurious and lackadaisical representation. We think she’s capable of far better.

If Lawrence were doing his job as school board counsel, he would advise his clients not to maintain unwritten policies that change from month to month. We implore him to research the relevant constitutional case law. If he does his homework, he’ll agree with North Carolina Press Association general counsel Amanda Martin, who summarizes the issue succinctly in a comment that bears repeating: “Parents have no obligation under personnel statutes. They do not have the authority, in my opinion, to censor what parents say.”

Martin also takes issue with the prior review requirement. There’s no good reason for elected officials to screen citizen comments before they’re delivered. The school board works for you, not the other way around. The way this board runs its meetings turns foundational principles of open government on their head.

Wooten did the right thing by allowing O’Neal to read the previously censored statement in full. He should have apologized to Holley and the Johnston County Education Summit, explained why he retroactively changed the reason for Holley’s censorship and announced that he’d no longer enforce the unconstitutional unwritten rule.

We’ll give the school board credit for trying, however imperfectly, to make amends. But more must be done to ensure future speakers aren’t censored. It’s as true on the Board of Education as in the student grading scale: Half-credit is still an “F.”