In interest of appearing united, some school boards limit members’ speech

When a Norfolk, Va., School Board member used a “racially, emotionally charged” term in a discussion about a school reorganization plan, Cherise Newsome believed it was her duty as a reporter to ask him to expand on his remarks.

But when she approached Rodney Jordan to ask him why he used the term “separate, but equal,” he directed her to the board chairman, as is board policy. That made it more difficult for the public to understand what Jordan meant in the first place, said Newsome, an education reporter for The Virginian-Pilot who has been covering schools for about a year and the Norfolk district since February.

The Norfolk School Board’s policy states, “The Chair (or designee) will speak as the official voice of the board.” The policy is a constant obstacle in Newsome’s ability to understand board members’ concerns and opinions, she said.

While policies like the one in Norfolk are not ubiquitous, the practice is not unheard of, said Emily Richmond, public editor for the Education Writers Association. Journalists across the country have reported similar policies or guidance in various school boards, but how and if they’re enforced varies widely from district to district, she said.

Proponents say the policies enable boards to maintain a singular, positive image. Those opposed to the policies, which include journalists, First Amendment advocates and often, board members themselves, say the policies gag members’ speech and limit the public’s ability to access information about boards’ decision-making processes.

The fact that these policies exist — regardless of whether they’re enforced — is “absolutely” a concern for journalists and the public, Richmond said, especially in districts where board members are elected rather than appointed.

“The voices that they’re supposed to be speaking for are their constituents, not their fellow board members,” Richmond said.

Jane Blystone, an elected school board member and former journalism teacher from Pennsylvania, said school boards that create a policy that designates one speaker for the board put themselves in a “very precarious position.”

“This is a dangerous policy to me because it flies in the face of the First Amendment,” she said.

Individual board members have a right — and a responsibility — to speak up about what they disagree with, to defend their votes and to publicly speak on issues, she said.

Sharon Noguchi, an education reporter for The San Jose Mercury News, has been on the beat since 2006, but her job has included some school coverage for more than two decades. Among the 50 to 60 school boards she is responsible for covering, Noguchi said there’s been an increase over the years in the number of times she’s been told to ask to chairman of the school board for comment. The result is that people “don’t get the true picture,” she said.

“Folks don’t know what their elected representatives know, think (or) believe in, and folks are getting just less information about how one of their basic democratic institutions work,” Noguchi said.

‘We wanted to look better’

Kirk Houston, the Norfolk board’s chairman, told Newsome the policy is a best practice, but the board is the only one of the region’s five school boards that has such a policy.

He said the term “best practice” could be argued, but he considers it the best way for the school board to communicate a message. It’s important that they’re “not monolithic,” but that they act as “one board” once decisions are made, and that is the primary intention of the board norm dictating the practice, Houston said.

Appearing united is also cornerstone of the San Jose Unified School District, one of the districts Noguchi covers. San Jose’s policy designates the superintendent or designee as the board spokesperson. Individual board members who do speak to the media are careful to say that it is their own view or thought and that they aren’t speaking for the board.

Once something is voted on, that is the position of the board, said board president Richard Garcia. Having one voice — all questions about the board are to be referred to him — enables “constituents to feel like your board is all on the same page,” he said.

“You win some and you lose some,” Garcia said. “Even though you may not be happy with it, it does no good to continue to argue the point.”

When the Caddo Parish School Board in Louisiana adopted a similar policy this spring, they too sought to look more unified, board president Carl Pierson said.

“We wanted to to look better while taking care of the business of the people that hired us,” Pierson said.

The policy, adopted in March in the interest of “One Board, One Voice,” designates the board president and/or designee as the official spokesperson regarding board actions and states that actions of the board are official and shouldn’t be “attacked” by individual board members, regardless of how they voted.

Once the board decides on an issue, members should move onto the next issue and not belabor the point, Pierson said. He stressed that they’re not trying to censor anybody, but asks that board members don’t speak about decisions — especially those where the debate gets heated — right after the meeting and instead “calm down and really get yourself under control” before talking to anybody.

“If a media person is there, then they hear all the arguments during the course of the debate,” Pierson said. “They just want soundbite after soundbite.”

The policy is controversial among board members. Member Charlotte Crawley voted against the policy, called it a “wasted” action and said she has no intention of following it.

“I’m totally ignoring that it’s there,” Crawley said. “It’s aggravating that they passed it, but no, I’m not going to follow it at all.”

Board member Curtis Hooks also has no intention of following the policy, stating that no one can speak for his district but him.

“They are not going to silence my voice, not whatsoever, not as long as I’m on this school board and I’m representing this district over here, district five,” Hooks said.

If the board is going to make a policy, they better be sure they can enforce it, Crawley said, pointing out that there are no consequences for members who go against the policy.

After the One Voice policy was imposed, the board revised the policy further in response to some of the criticism, Pierson said. A new section clarifies that the policy “is not intended to prohibit board members from making individual comments regarding matters of interest to the public; however, individual board member comments are not to be considered comments of the board.”

The revision was intended to “soften it up a little bit because people were thinking that we were trying to censor them,” Pierson said.

It didn’t solve the issue for Crawley, who called it “double speak.” She believes the policy will limit the amount of information available to the public, she said, questioning the ability of the board president to field the calls that all board members receive from the public — Crawley herself receives about four or five per week, she said.

In New Hampshire, board members on the Timberlane School Board questioned similar policies — which would have limited members’ ability to speak out against board actions and to speak to the press — when they were proposed earlier this year.

During the March 20 meeting, two board members raised concerns about the rules. Peter Bealo said though he hasn’t spoken to the press in three years, he should have the ability to do so if he chooses. Donna Green said though she understands the need for solidarity, members didn’t give up their right to free speech when they were elected.

Robert Collins, the member who drafted the rules, defended them, saying that because the board chairwoman is usually the most up-to-date on information, the rules prevent yesterday’s information from reaching the public when it could have turned 180 degrees in 24 hours.

Board chairwoman Nancy Steenson also defended the policy, saying their image as a unified group would be in jeopardy if they allowed board members to speak to the press.

“We’re not suppressing anyone’s free speech by asking board members not to speak to the press whenever they choose,” Steenson said in the meeting. Despite repeated requests for comment, Steenson couldn’t be reached.

In the days that followed, the board received public pushback. At the following school board meeting, Steenson said she had been accused of having a “petty scheme to aggregate power to myself,” and had been compared to Stalin.

The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union sent a letter detailing the ways the rules infringed members’ First Amendment rights. Gilles Bissonnette, staff attorney for the NHCLU, said board rules that limit members’ ability to speak to the press actually stifle public debate, which is just as important and valuable when it plays out in the media as it is when it occurs in a board meeting.

“I think we contend — and I think this really can’t be disputed — that commenting to the press is a quintessential activity of an elected official,” Bissonnette said.

In April, the school board amended the rules in partnership with NHCLU attorneys. At the meeting, Steenson said it was never her intent to stifle anyone’s First Amendment rights.

“Our goal as a board has always been to ensure consistency and accuracy of information to the press,” Steenson said. “Having one spokesperson helps us to achieve that goal.”

The new rules encourage members to direct questions to the board chairwoman, but clearly lay out that they are not prohibited from voicing their opinions to the press and public.

Bealo was the only present board member to dissent, calling the amended versions “wishy-washy” and “ambiguous” rules that at the end of the day don’t do a lot.

Bissonnette said once the NHCLU raised the consequences and legal issues with the rules, the board quickly understood the problems with them.

“We were very pleased with the school board’s response,” Bissonnette said. “They took immediate action. They were very thoughtful in their approach.”

Image control and unintended messages

Richmond said there is more attention being paid to education right now than there has been in many years, and it can make school boards “understandably anxious and even defensive” about their decisions.

“So that desire to present a united front, that desire to appear as a professional unit is understandable, but it shouldn’t be the culture of schools that an elected board member or an appointed board member has been told not to use their voice to the fullest extent, and that includes talking to the media,” Richmond said.

While the intent of these policies is to appear united on board actions, the practice can send different messages to the public. At times, such policies can create an idea that there isn’t as much “individual” or “careful” thought about the decisions a board makes, Richmond said.

“If things are all from one voice, it give the perception — rightly or wrongly — that decisions are being made with a rubber stamp and that that rubber stamp is held by one person,” Richmond said.

It’s dishonest and a disservice to the public to say that the board is unified if it isn’t, said Hooks, the Caddo Parish board member.

“This board will never be unified, and they want to fool people like it’s unified,” he said. “It is not unified.”

Ultimately, it’s up to reporters to be diligent about letting the public know what is happening as a result of this practice, Richmond said. Writing about it, as Newsome did, can shed light on the situation, so that the public is aware of how the board operates.

“As an education reporter, transparency is really important, so I believe that public officials should verify, validate, explain any claims that they make, especially in a public setting like meetings,” Newsome said.

She received phone calls, texts and emails about the column from members of the public who weren’t aware of the policy. Ultimately, a lot of people were upset when they learned of it, she said.

“They felt like public officials should be held accountable, and when they don’t speak, it’s hard to do that,” she said.