ACLU says Shawnee Mission’s restriction on criticism of board members violates First Amendment, asks that prohibition be removed

Jay Senter - December 6, 2017 10:09 am

CAA-2017

In May, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas asked the Shawnee Mission board of education to halt its practice of telling patrons not to mention district employees by name during board meeting open forums. Instead, the board of education just adopted a new open forum policy that expands its restrictions on “inappropriate” comments beyond those that mention individual employees. Now, patrons can’t mention elected members of the board, either.

As you might imagine, the ACLU is not pleased. Not pleased at all.

In a letter delivered to the board today, ACLU Legal Director Emeritus says that the board’s prohibition on the criticism of elected officials at its meetings represents a clear violation of the First Amendment, and asks them to remove the restriction from its recently approved board manual.

“By adopting [the policy] the school board has intentionally opened its regular monthly meeting for public comment,” Bonney writes. “Thus it has created a designated public forum to which the First Amendment applies.”

Bonney said that case law clearly demonstrates that the public has a right to air criticism of both elected officials and public employees.

“By labeling ‘complaints against individual board members and/or individual employees’ as ‘inappropriate for open forum’ and by requiring people to communicate such complaints in writing rather than orally, [the policy] constitutes unconstitutional content discrimination…” Bonney wrote.

Last week, district parent Jeff Passan, whose criticism of board member Deb Zila’s failure to disclose a conflict of interest prompted a rebuke from then-board president Sara Goodburn at a board meeting in May, wrote a scathing opinion column taking the board to task for trying to prevent criticism of board members.

“The district, once the jewel of public education in Kansas City, now excels in the art of the self-inflicted wound,” Passan wrote. “And as my tax dollars contribute to the $230 million-plus the board distributes, and as my son is one of more than 27,000 children whose educational well-being the board oversees, I’m struck by the district’s lack of respect for its constituency. Transparency from school boards is not a goal. It’s a necessity.”

The full letter from the ACLU is below:

Download (PDF, 1.04MB)

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