Freedom of speech

Published 9:49 am Monday, February 16, 2015

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

— United States Constitution, First Amendment


The School Board will not permit speakers to discuss specific personnel or student concerns during the public session, but may be invited to do so during “Closed Meeting.” Names, titles or positions which can identify specific individuals will not be allowed during the public session. Speakers having specific personnel or student concerns may sign-up to speak on these topics during “Closed Meeting.” Only the speaker or representative of a group may be present during “Closed Meeting.” Permission to speak before the School Board in “Closed Meeting” is at the discretion of the Franklin City School Board.

— Franklin City Public Schools, Rules for Citizens’ Time at School Board Meetings

At a recent meeting of the Franklin City School Board, a Franklin resident attempted to address the board concerning the retirement of a long-time teacher who had overseen the system’s gifted learning program.

When the speaker mentioned the name of the retired teacher by name, the board’s chair halted her speech, informing her that mentioning a specific person by name was not allowed during citizens’ time. The speaker was not attempting to badmouth the teacher or slander her in any way. She simply wanted to know how the school board planned to address the void created by the teacher’s departure.

This is certainly not the first time something similar has happened.

In fact, Franklin residents have long been frustrated by the school board chair’s refusal to allow them to utter the name of any school system employee — past or present — during citizens’ time at school board meetings. I had assumed, and I believe many others may have as well, that shutting down such discussion was merely a ploy used by the board to avoid publicly discussing difficult issues. As it turns out, the prohibition on specifically mentioning any individual by name is a written rule, vigorously enforced by the board.

People’s frustration over this policy is incredibly valid. It is also a clear violation of a citizen’s right to free speech, protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

This is a policy that clearly needs to be challenged, and I call on the school board to defend its position. I do not believe the school board possesses the legal authority to dictate what a citizen can or can not discuss during a public meeting, so long as the topic is related to school business and is not slanderous toward any individual. However, the school board clearly believes it does. And I am anxious to see what supporting documentation they can produce to prove me wrong.

TONY CLARK is the publisher of The Tidewater News. He can be contacted at either 562-3187 or