The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas this week blasted new Shawnee Mission School District guidelines that restrict those making public comments at board meetings from speaking about specific district employees or students, calling the requirement “unconstitutional.”
In a letter sent to school board president Sara Goodburn on Tuesday, ACLU of Kansas chief counsel and legal director Doug Bonney criticized Goodburn for reproaching a parent who used board member Debra Zila’s name while asking questions about a specific conflict of interest issue at the May 22 school board meeting.
“It’s fundamental to our system of government that people have the ability to criticize public leaders,” Bonney told The Star on Wednesday. “It’s not limited to elected officials — it applies to all government officials.”
Goodburn has since acknowledged that she incorrectly interrupted the parent’s comments, as Zila is not a district employee.
But Bonney said that the First Amendment protects the public’s right to “call out or praise” not only elected officials like Zila but all public servants, which includes teachers and other school staff.
On Wednesday, district spokeswoman Erin Little acknowledged the district received the ACLU letter “regarding the draft guidelines for open forums.
“As the board continues its review of draft guidelines, it will take the comments in the letter into consideration as it balances the privacy rights of individual students and employees with the free speech rights of individual citizens,” Little said.
Though the district referred to a “draft” policy in its statements, guidelines prohibiting the public from referring to district employees or students by name were read aloud by Goodburn before the open forum segment of both the April and May school board meetings and presented as standard procedure.
At the May 22 meeting, parent Jeff Passan spoke during the public comments segment and raised the board’s unanimous January approval of a contract for CBIZ, an insurance company that employs Zila’s daughter, Mallory.
The board, Passan said, had been “tellingly silent” on this issue, especially since board policies prevent members from approving expenditures they may have personal connections to.
Why hadn’t the board asked Zila to recuse herself from voting, Passan asked board members, and why hadn’t Zila considered refraining from voting herself?
While board members typically do not respond to public comments at the meeting, Goodburn interrupted Passan to inform him that he had violated district guidelines.
“Naming specific people is really not allowed,” Goodburn said. “...You can say a board member, but a specific board member you cannot say.”
Bonney wrote in his letter that the board’s current guidelines are “overbroad and “inconsistent” with the First Amendment, as they also prohibit the public from “personal attacks.”
“The guidelines would prohibit a parent from criticizing Superintendent Hinson by name for his public statements about the on-going legislative and public debate over school funding in Kansas,” Bonney wrote. “Similarly, the guidelines would prohibit a parent from extolling the selfless dedication of a particular teacher or principal in the district who has made extraordinary efforts to help immigrant students.”
While Bonney said the school district had not responded to his letter, the district has made changes in response to concerns of the ACLU and other outside parties before.
After the ACLU sent a similar letter criticizing how the district handled a deportation incident involving the family of a Briarwood Elementary School student, the school board adopted a resolution expressing its commitment to student rights and immigration issues.