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The Johnston County Board of Education makes you jump through hoops to speak during school board meetings because it’s afraid of what you might have to say.
School board members and their attorney admitted as much when the Johnstonian News asked why members of the public who wish to address the board are required to sign up 48 hours in advance and “furnish statements or written information prior to the meeting.”
Johnston County Public Schools’ attorney, Jimmy Lawrence of the Smithfield firm Daughry, Woodard, Lawrence & Starling, told our reporter that the policy is in place “to keep public comments away from addressing confidential personnel information or complaining about personnel issues that are meant to be confidential and should be addressed by human resources or others within the personnel department.”
Board member Peggy Smith echoed those concerns, contending that talking about “discipline issues of a child or performance issues by a staff member by name” would violate “privacy laws.”
In neighboring Wilson County, the school board eliminated a policy that prohibited speakers from discussing personnel matters last May when our sister paper, The Wilson Times, pointed out that such restrictions run afoul of the First Amendment.
“A public comment period at a public school board meeting is a designated public forum,” Vanderbilt University law professor and First Amendment Center ombudsman David L. Hudson Jr. explained. “Thus, content-based restrictions on speech in such a forum are problematic and probably unconstitutional. Government officials often try to shut down speech that they don’t want to hear. I think the parents should be able to voice their opinions.”
What about the “privacy laws” Smith cited? North Carolina does have statutes declaring certain information about government employees to be confidential, but those apply to the school system. They are not binding on the general public.
“Parents have no obligation under personnel statutes,” Amanda Martin, general counsel for the North Carolina Press Association, told the Times last year. “They do not have the authority, in my opinion, to censor what parents say. If they want to discuss what they have heard, they have some latitude to go into closed session.”
Likewise, student privacy laws apply to those who have access to student records. The average parent doesn’t qualify.
Lawrence said Johnston County’s policy is content-neutral. But we doubt the ban on personnel-related comments would extend to congratulating a teacher who won an award or lauding a coach who led student-athletes to a state championship. Allowing praise and censoring criticism isn’t content-neutral. It’s the textbook definition of unlawful viewpoint-based discrimination.
We asked the school board to justify its restrictive public comment policy because the 48-hour registration requirement and mandate that comments be provided in writing serve as barriers to the people’s podium that reduce participation. We didn’t expect the board to freely admit it’s inclined to engage in censorship. That suggests these elected officials are merely misinformed and don’t understand that what they’re doing is wrong.
Lawrence would be wise to consult with fellow attorneys such as Brian Shaw of Raleigh education law firm Schwartz & Shaw, who represents Wilson County Schools and rewrote the public comment policy there to remove the unconstitutional ban on discussing personnel matters.
In most cases, specific classroom complaints are best addressed through established grievance resolution procedures. School officials are welcome to suggest that route. But whether or not to air such concerns publicly is an individual choice that Johnston County parents must be free to make.
The Wilson school board added a three-day advance registration requirement last May, but constituents didn’t appreciate an invitation to speak that was sealed with red tape. At the public’s and press’s urging, board members there became allies of open government and dropped the restriction in December. Will Johnston County rise to the challenge and join them?
There’s no need to fear parents and others who seek an audience with the school board. After all, Johnston County Board of Education members’ job is to listen to the people they represent. It’s also their job to fix this flawed public comment policy in a hurry.