It’s not unusual to hear of students being censored. But school board members? According to The Register Citizen in Connecticut, the Torrington Board of Education met in closed session to order a fellow school board member to stop writing letters to the editor. What sparked the school board’s crackdown has apparently been traced back to the weekly letters written by board member Vincent Merola, who wanted to share positive stories about the school district.
That’s right: Merola wanted more attention for positive stories about the school district.
According to reports in the Register, the board used a sketchy justification to call the closed session related to Merola’s conduct. From an editorial in the Register:
“We don’t know the exact details of what happened or was said. Reporters, parents and tapayers were prohibited from attending under a clause of the state’s Freedom of Information Act that allows nonpublic sessions to be held to conduct performance reviews for employees. The board argues that Merola as an elected volunteer board member qualifies as an employee, and that writing letters to the editor in violation of a policy that itself violates the First Amendment, common sense and good government is some kind of “performance” problem or “misconduct.'”
The paper criticized the school board for the illegally closed public meeting and also for silencing the speech of one of its own members, who’s now telling the paper he’s not allowed to speak to them, period.
The board responded by calling an emergency meeting held solely to vote on a resolution condemning the newspaper. Our favorite part of the meeting has to be this:
“Appropriately enough, when Merola asked point blank, ‘Does the board object to individual members’ (exercising) their First Amendment right?’ board member John Kissko sharply replied, ‘That’s not on the agenda!'”
Merola and one other member voted against the resolution, which won in a 6-2 vote. In a statement after the vote, members defended their decision to limit members’ speech because of the board’s sensitive work, estimating that a full 90 percent of its work is confidential. Not surprisingly, the board cited FERPA, HIPPA and the threat of lawsuits as a justification for its policy.
It makes you wonder — if school board members in Torrington have this little respect for the First Amendment rights of an adult on its board, how bad must it be for students in the district?