School board restricts free speech, later rescinds

Suspicious language in a statement from the Board of Education that appeared to restrict free speech rights is now under review after The Darien Times brought this concern to the school board.

The statement, delivered by board Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross on at least one occasion, restricted speakers from discussing their children at board meetings. After telling the audience that the board would not engage in dialogue with speakers, Hagerty-Ross said that “any comments of a personal nature about your student, staff, or board member will not be permitted.”

This statement is troublesome to experts of the First Amendment, the clause in the U.S. Bill of Rights that establishes free speech as a cornerstone of the democratic process. Rose Cavanagh, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said Hagerty-Ross’s statement seemed “overbroad to prohibit parents to speak about their children.”

“Given the controversy surrounding the school’s actions of late with regards to students’ rights, it may be more prudent for the Board of Education to allow parents to express the students’ perspectives,” Cavanagh told The Darien Times.

The Board of Education has taken unprecedented and expensive steps to fix an assortment of legal problems with its special education programming.

Problems included a lack of communication with parents from the school board and administration. Part of the district’s mitigation effort has been the addition of a public comment section during school board meetings.

School board critics and supporters alike have lauded this effort. However, the directive to restrict parents has some concerned.

Ken Paulson, a lawyer and president of the First Amendment Center, said that this restriction would also prevent parents from sharing good news about their children.

“A government body can set some standards for when and how long a speaker can address a meeting, but they would be hard-pressed to justify a vague standard like this,” Paulson said. “This [statement] could be cleaned up very easily by making it more specific.”

Hagerty-Ross said that the statement she read was “inherited” from “previous board chairpersons,” and that it had not been reviewed by district’s counsel, Shipman & Goodwin.

Tom Mooney, the district’s lawyer, told the board chairman that “the statement as written does in fact inappropriately limit free speech rights, and [Mooney] will be suggesting some changes,” according to Hagerty-Ross.

Cavanagh noted that it’s important for the district to review this policy, as “much of what parents can offer to the public deliberation is perceptions through the lens of their child.”

“When evaluating whether a particular government policy burdens the First Amendment, it is necessary to see if it restricts a particular viewpoint from being expressed,” Cavanagh said. “Any policy put in place because of hostility to a particular point of view would run afoul of the First Amendment.”

It’s unclear when Hagerty-Ross’s statement was written and who wrote it. An examination of board minutes going back to 2010 showed there were no similar statements made under her predecessor, Kim Westcott.

On several occasions over the last three years, the school board has silenced parents who began to talk about their disabled children at board meetings, citing legal concerns. This restriction of free speech continued through the special education investigations that found the district broke state and federal laws

The admission by the board that its content restriction policy is under review is the first action of its kind in recent school history.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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