‘It’s all about free speech:’ School board reviews public comment policies
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Steamboat Springs School District Board of Education continues to review policies when it comes to public comments.
Some of it is logistical for the board that is largely newly elected — such as how to best cut people off after they exceed the three-minute limit.
Other parts are much trickier.
The discussion comes after the public eruption of two controversies — one involving language in literature deemed highly offensive and another which has resulted in an independent investigation around the reporting and response following students’ claims of sexual harassment and assault at Steamboat Springs High School.
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“It’s all about free speech,” said one public commenter at the Jan. 27 meeting, when several people spoke out in support of minimizing restrictions and protecting free speech — even amidst sensitive issues and matters involving personnel.
Board members continued the discussion at the Feb. 10 meeting but have yet to vote on any changes to policy.
“It is a matter of freedom of speech,” Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Brad Meeks echoed at the Jan. 27 meeting. Public comments are unpredictable, he said.
Things may come out that are defamatory and disparaging, but it’s up to the board to set some ground rules — and those rules can address civility and prevent the disruption of a meeting, Meeks said.
Board President Kelly Latterman referred to correspondence she has recently received that crossed lines in terms of personal attacks and threats.
However, “It had nothing to do with our community and how we move forward,” she said.
Latterman said some of those outside attacks prompted her to consult the board’s legal counsel — and contributed to prompting a closer review of public comment policies. They stressed it was in no way an attack on freedom of speech.
At the Feb. 10 meeting, board members examined current policies and the precise language within. But they are still awaiting further legal advice before making any policy changes. And the consensus among board members was to avoid being “too prescriptive” and ensure adherence to free speech, while also trying to encourage civility.
They discussed potentially adding the following paragraph to their policy: “Maintaining order and a professional environment ensures the public is respectfully heard and protects the board’s ability to efficiently accomplish the public’s business. This policy seeks to promote civility among district employees, parents and the public. For purposes of this policy, ‘civility’ shall be defined as mutual respect and consideration reflected in language, attitude and behavior in the interest of presenting commentary that serves as a role model for the children of this district as well as the community. Volatile, hostile or aggressive actions will not be tolerated. Should the speaker choose to discuss mature content, the board asks that adequate warning be given as our audience may include younger students.”
However, when including words like “hostile” or “volatile” in policy, Meeks noted, those words have to be defined. The speaker may not define hostile the same as the board.
According to Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB) guidelines, “the board president has the right to maintain order during all periods of public comment, which includes prohibiting yelling, vulgarity, ‘fighting words’ and derogatory language.” And in terms of handling disruptive community members, “it is essential for the board to establish fair processes and procedures in advance and apply them consistently.”
However, the CASB guidelines continued, as was discussed by board members, “if the board provides a general public comment period” (which is not mandated), “the board cannot prohibit community members from criticizing the district, board members of district employees, as this may constitute viewpoint discrimination in violation of the person’s free speech rights.”
Criticism that is viewed on a more personal — or personnel — level does occur, they agreed, and cannot be prohibited.
On this issue, board members elected to relocate, but not change the sentence: “The board encourages the discussion of all personnel matters to be conducted in executive discussion.”
Board members also addressed the restrictions in terms of not being able to engage and respond to every public commenter and how to adhere to those rules while also being sensitive to how difficult it can be for people to come before the board and publicly express views related to highly sensitive topics.
Some of those issues can be addressed in practice, as opposed to policies, the board agreed. Any actual changes to practice or policy will be discussed at future meetings.
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