Speak no evil

Karen Gray

"Forasmuch as there have been oftentimes found in the Country Devisors of Tales, whereby discord or occasion of discord, hath many times arisen between the King and his People, or Great Men of this Realm; for the Damage that hath and may thereof ensue; It is commanded, That, from henceforth, none be so hardy to tell or publish any false News or Tales, whereby discord, or occasion of discord or slander may grow between the King and his People, or the Great Men of the Realm; and he that doth so, shall be taken and kept in Prison, until he hath brought him into the Court, which was the first Author of the Tale."

— De Scandalum Magnatum, 1275, 3 Edw. 1, Stat. West. prim. c.34

English ecclesiastical courts enacted De Scandalum Magnatum in 1275 to protect the monarchy and the "Great Men of the Realm" from "untruthful" naysayers and other dissenters.

In today's society, however, freedom of expression is widely recognized as a fundamental human right  a right that is paramount in a democracy, where public discourse is an important check on otherwise arrogant or indifferent government.

For that reason, this right is explicitly acknowledged in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Among Clark County School District trustees, however, free speech is regularly seen as problematic. And so trustees, once again, are contemplating new limits on citizen speech at school-board meetings.

This time, the board isn't looking to reduce public speaking time or expand public input only if participants are reasonable. This time, the board is seeking to prohibit certain types of speech altogether.

However, the proposed policy language, as originally contemplated by the board, has caused some concern for the board's legal counsel, Mary Ann Miller. Placed on hold awaiting further legal review, the language is taken from a 2002 Nevada attorney general opinion  interestingly, by the board's other legal counsel, Mark Woods.

It reads:

Public comment, the content of which is irrelevant, beyond the authority of the board, willfully disruptive of the meeting, repetitious, slanderous, offensive, inflammatory, irrational, amounts to personal attacks or interferes with the rights of other speakers, is prohibited.

People who have never witnessed a school-board meeting may not be able to fathom the intensity and passion that members of the public bring to the issues discussed in this forum. But these are individuals either seeking recourse for something personal to themselves or their family or recourse for some general issue of public concern. Consequently, CCSD school-board hearings can at times be quite contentious.

In recent months especially, many in the attending public have been consistently and relentlessly expressing feelings of disenfranchisement, of racial and social inequity and of repression by the school district, school board and certain individual trustees. 

As these issues  perceived or otherwise  continue to fester, expressions of displeasure and, in some cases, contempt, bounce between the public and trustees alike. Public discussions have become heated, poignant and even scandalous, leaving some individuals on either side of the dais  feeling personally attacked and insulted.

Yet, is the school board so incapable of dealing with these issues that its final solution is to simply prohibit dissonant, emotional speech about them? Prohibiting speech that trustees unilaterally find irrelevant, inflammatory, irrational or offensive will only paint the board further into a corner  characterizing it as one that routinely fails to respond to community needs and instead merely seeks to suppress the public.

Maggie McLetchie, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, notes that, "any attempt by CCSD to control what the public can say at meetings runs the risk of censorship and violates the spirit of Nevada's open meeting law. 

"Who is going to determine, for example, what is ‘irrational' or ‘irrelevant'?" she asks.

"CCSD trustees are public officials," argues McLetchie, and "the public should be able to criticize and question their officials, and officials should not try to immunize themselves from such criticism and questioning."

For better or worse, it is in public debate, through open and free discussion, that we glean an understanding. Likewise, it is through varying opinions and insights that truth is revealed. 

And while no one is advocating personal attacks on school-board members, it is fair to also recognize that trustees are elected officials, who knowingly accepted the higher degree of public criticism and disparagement that comes today with public office. 

Now that hard issues face the school board, and the public is expressing its frustration with years of official failure, trustees should not pull up the drawbridge and go hide behind their hurt feelings.

They were eager to be recognized as the "Great Persons of this Realm"  as trustees, willing and able to bear and fulfill the community's trust.

Will they now deserve that title? Or will they seek, instead, to reinstate a modern-day De Scandulum Magnatum and flee from the contest of ideas?

Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.