Nothing more important than free speech

Published 11:22 am Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Of all the rights granted to American citizens, perhaps none is more important than our right to free speech, guaranteed in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. An attempt by any level of government, be it federal, state or local, to repress that right should be met with outrage and swift protest. We feel that the “personal attack” rules put in place by the Franklin City School Board, which forbid a person from mentioning the name, title or job description of any school system employee during citizens’ time in a school board meeting, to be a clear attempt to repress free speech and, as such, we will continue to stand in protest of these rules until they are changed or eliminated.

The case primarily cited by the school board to support its position is Steinberg v. Chesterfield County Planning Commission, in which the court clearly decided that on issues of disruptive conduct and off-topic discussion (also known as time, manner and place rules) governing bodies have the right to shut speakers down for failing to follow those rules.

However, this case does not address the matter of restricting protected speech, including speech critical of public school employees. On matters of protected speech, the courts have come to the defense of an individual’s right to speak. The ruling of the court in Bach v. School Board of Virginia Beach, in which that school system had a rule similar to the one in Franklin, states that, “A policy that chills protected speech cannot stand. The court finds the contested provision is unconstitutional as a prior restraint of free speech in a limited public forum.” Another court ruling in California, Baca v. Moreno Valley Unified School District, states, “Speech criticizing a district employee is protected by the federal constitution from government censorship and prior restraint.”

The case law, in our opinion, could not be clearer. We applaud school board attorney Taylor Williams for revisiting the policy, and hope the school board will change its unconstitutional practice of restricting protected speech.