School attorney proposes new Citizens’ Time rules

Published 1:06 pm Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Franklin City Public School Board policy update on Citizens’ Time that had previously been delayed twice for additional research will now be delayed again, so the board can get a good look at the changes.

View the modified rules.

School Board Attorney H. Taylor Williams IV had only been able to get the document to board members on the day the vote was set for, so Superintendent Dr. Willie J. Bell recommended that it carry over to the June meeting for further discussion or action.

This reporter and The Tidewater News Publisher Tony Clark brought to Williams’ attention the case of Bach vs. the School Board of the City of Virginia Beach, in which rules for a limited public forum similar to Franklin’s were challenged. The U.S. District Court in Norfolk found that a policy that chilled protected speech could not stand and was unconstitutional, as a prior restraint upon speech in a limited public forum.

Specifically, in Rule No. 5 of 10, the board did not permit speakers to discuss specific personnel or student concerns during the public session, which had been used by the School Board Chair to limit critical speech.

While researching, Williams compared the Bach case with cases he had previously used, such as Steinburg v. Chesterfield County Planning Commission. He said previous cases dealt with a situation where the meeting got out of control, and the rulings related to the chairperson’s ability to seize control back.

However, in Bach, the speaker was not unruly, but was merely offering criticism of school employees.

“The language I tried to incorporate here tries to retain as much control for the chair, so if meeting does get out of hand, the chair can act to regain control,” Williams said. “By the same token, it lets people know you can be critical, but you need to be respectful.”

In total, the attorney says the rules are not that different from previous rules, but they would now offer the public the opportunity to be critical of employees.

“Court opinion deals with the inequality in allowing a citizen to come forward and talk about the good things the schools are doing, but prohibiting someone coming forward and offering criticism about what the division is doing,” Williams said, adding that the rule changes were based on those from Virginia Beach.

“I think what I have plagiarized from Virginia Beach,” he continued with a laugh, “to add to what we have, still keeps the basics of what was there before, but it adds the content necessary to hopefully keep us out of trouble with the Bach ruling.”

Gone from the rules are mentions limiting discussion on school personnel, and they are instead replaced with: “… allowing members of the public to present any matter, which, in the opinion of the speaker, shall be germane to policies, affairs, services, school curriculum, or school activities such as athletics, band, clubs and other after school activities within the school division.”

The rules also add that the board will not entertain comment dealing with pending student discipline or employee grievance matters.

Williams mentioned that the board had considered decreasing the time speakers were allowed at the podium from 5 minutes to 3 minutes.

Also, considering who is allowed to speak, the phrase related to taxpayers of the City of Franklin has been removed and replaced with persons who physically live in the city.