Protecting free speech

Published 12:01 pm Saturday, April 23, 2016

Fourteen months ago in this very column, I took the Franklin City School Board to task regarding its rules for the Citizen’s Time portion of its regular meetings. That column specifically challenged the board to produce documentation that supports their prohibition on the ability of a person to mention the name of any specific school employee, let alone be critical of that employee, which goes so far as to even ban people from mentioning the job title of an individual as it may infer to whom the speaker is referring.

My position at the time, as it is today, is that this rule is a clear violation of the United States Constitution and effectively chills a citizen’s right to free speech protected under the First Amendment.

Although very specific case law confirms these rules are in violation of the Constitution, and even after having been presented with the legal precedent that clearly contradicts the school board’s rules, the school board today continues to actively restrict the First Amendment rights of Franklin citizens.

Proponents of the city’s free-speech restrictions claim the city is well within its rights to run an orderly and professional public meeting. While close observers of this school board in recent years likely find this notion to be more than just a little ironic, the school board is, in fact, correct. The board does have the right to interrupt and dismiss a speaker who becomes belligerent or goes off topic. In the case Steinburg v. Chesterfield County Planning Commission, the court ruled in favor of the planning commission when the chairman removed a speaker from a public hearing when it had deemed the speaker’s behavior had gotten out of control.

However, this case does not give a governing body the ability to restrict a speaker’s attempt to address an issue relating to a specific employee by name. In fact, the court in Bach v. Virginia Beach School Board ruled against that school board for enforcing the same exact rule that the Franklin City School Board has in place today.

The school board’s concerns that people may go overboard when addressing specific personnel issues are valid, and the court has confirmed the board has the right to shut down any speaker who has crossed the line from appropriate decorum to poor behavior. But to restrict the constitutionally protected free speech of a United States citizen out of fear for what may be said is a far more egregious crime than losing one’s cool during Citizen’s Time in a school board meeting.

Last week Virginia’s Attorney General, at the request of Del. Rick Morris (R-64), issued an official advisory opinion on the Franklin School Board’s rules in which he stated, “The blanket prohibitions in the Rules against speech on “specific personnel or student concerns” and speech identifying school officials or employees may not constitutionally be applied so as to bar speakers from discussing specific school employees or officials during meetings, and the prohibition against all “personal attacks” is not constitutionally permissible.”

The courts have spoken. So, too, has Virginia’s Attorney General. The Franklin School Board’s rules for Citizen’s Time are against the law and a clear violation of the Constitution of The United States. Yet it remains unclear whether this school board, which has a history of thumbing its nose at its detractors, will do anything about it. I hope I’m wrong, but experience tells me that, on their own, they probably won’t.

TONY CLARK is the publisher of The Tidewater News. Contact him at 562-3187 or