Should boards restrict public comment?

This guest post was written by Rick Hood, who was a member of the Amherst School Committee from 2010 to 2016 and chair of the Regional School Committee from 2010 to 2012.

In a town where only the H is silent, what is “acceptable” public comment?

An issue that came up a few times when I was on the School Committee was how to handle critical public comment directed at people, as opposed to policy, program or process. The issue came up again at the May 22 meeting of the Regional School Committee, where many had come to comment on  the middle school principal search.

I urge people to watch that meeting; seeing is much more direct than reading the words of someone like me interpreting what I saw. You can find the video at Amherst Media:  https://amherstmedia.org/content/amherst-pelham-regional-school-committee-5-22-18

Having said that, here are my thoughts.

The first person to speak during the public comment period asked if she could be allowed 10 minutes to speak instead of the usual three. After some discussion, that request was denied. But it was said that the three-minute limit would not be a hard stop. It was also suggested that the speaker use “other methods” to communicate longer comments. This was the committee’s decision, not the chair’s, as the chair had asked the committee and the consensus was no.

The main issue occurred when the speaker started making disparaging remarks about specific people, mainly the superintendent, but also teachers.

Some examples include:

“…teachers who discredited their own profession in service to repairing another person’s ego [at the] last school committee meeting…”

“…the superintendent had to create public suspicion about a principal of color who was well known in the district…”

“…unless one white man decides they are the right fit for his establishment…”

“…this was a hiring system of cronyism that the superintendent had set up…”

The chair and other committee members cut her off and asked her to stop with the disparaging personal remarks. She kept doing it, and so eventually the  committee voted to recess, and walked away before the speaker was done.

So what is the best way to handle these situations?

On the one hand, these comments were definitely a violation of the School Committee’s written policy, which had been made crystal clear by the Chair and others. Based on that, it’s hard to argue that the committee did the wrong thing.

On the other hand, this is public comment directed to a board of elected officials, and should such speech be restricted at all? At this meeting, both critical and supportive people attended and spoke. I believe that members of the public can decide for themselves who seems credible, who does not, and who is “out of line” or “over the top” in their remarks.

This is what School Committee “Policy BEDH: Public Participation at Committee Meetings” says:

“Speakers may offer comments and opinions about the school operations and programs that concern them, but in public session the Committee will not hear personal complaints about school personnel nor against any member of the school community, either by name or by reference to position. Under most circumstances, administrative channels are the proper means for disposition of legitimate complaints involving staff members.”

Many schools have a similar policy, because most of it comes the Mass. Association of School Committees’ suggested polices, which many school systems use as a basis and modify as needed.

Perhaps “nor against any member of the school community” is a too broad. I am not sure that protecting “any member of the school community” from “personal complaints” is the best way to go. My view is that certain school officials are fair game for any kind of comment. School Committee members are elected. They are answerable to the public and, in my view, have to take whatever they get in terms of public feedback, and that
feedback should not be restricted.

The superintendent is not elected, and is technically not directly answerable to the public, but rather to the School Committee. Still, the superintendent does answer to the public all the time and knows that is part of the job.

Superintendents need to have a “thick skin,” which really means self-assurance, combined with a belief that the majority of the public will properly weigh critical and positive comments and come to a reasonable understanding of the truth. By the way, the current superintendent has that quality, and was not the one asking to limit what was said about him.

I know that many will disagree with some of this and think that civility should always be “enforced.” But does that end up doing more harm than good? It’s a question worth asking. I am honestly not sure what the “right” answer is, and can see both sides of the argument.

What do you think?

“A Better Amherst,” the book version of the 80 charter-related posts on this blog, is now available at amazon.com.


Comments 7

  1. I think criticizing someone for the color of their skin is wrong, in the same way that criticizing someone for their religion or sexual gender or their nationality or citizenship status is wrong. Our school system and ourselves as parents teach our children not to do that… We teach our kids to treat everyone fairly and not to bully others. So how do you reconcile the behavior in the public comments of some citizens that we all witnessed that evening? I’m trying to imagine if a citizen criticized a school superintendent for being African-American or Latino or Asian in the same manner that some speakers criticized the current superintendent for being white. How would we as a town feel if our school superintendent was criticized for being or an LGBTQ person or whose country of origin was Syria? I’d like to think we would not tolerate such clearly unfair and hateful behavior. I guess it’s up to us to decide if Amherst is a town that is respectful of all people’s heritages and that values all people’s human rights, as we seem to want to be. It’s up to us.

  2. Try not to focus on exactly what was said by the speaker — which I obviously disagree with. This is just one example of derogatory remarks made against persons at a public meeting — there are other examples that have nothing to do with race.

    We do teach our kids to try to treat everyone fairly. On the other hand, we also need to teach them that people who make unfair remarks exist, and so what is the best way to deal with that when it happens? Stop the speech, or not?

    TM did not allow personal attacks, so that is one data point. That seemed to be a very good rule. Probably the current SC meeting rules are correct, and also seem to be the recommendation of MASC. But I figure asking the question is not a bad thing to do anyways.

  3. I think that you asked a very good question, Rick… it was not a bad thing to do at all. But I also think we SHOULD focus on EXACTLY what was said by that speaker… I think that is the point. Maybe it’s getting easier to accept that kind of unfair, discriminatory often-times racial rhetoric we heard that night since we hear it all the time now from our current President. But that doesn’t make it right. In any event, I appreciate having had the opportunity to give my opinion here and I have said what I wanted to say. I hope others will give their opinions. This seems like the kind of thing where you want to hear from a lot of different people who probably hold a lot of different thoughts.

  4. Post

    I think there are some significant risks to allowing unlimited public comment at board and committee meetings.
    First, if we allow speakers to attack individuals publicly, especially Town and school employees, outside the normal process of employment review, then we make their jobs more difficult and it becomes harder to recruit and retain competent people.
    Second, if we allow unlimited time for individual public comments, we crowd out other comments and make serving on an elected or appointed board more onerous. We also diminish the credibility of any rule or policy.
    I’m not sure this is a free speech issue. There are numerous other avenues that members of the public can pursue to get their opinions heard. For example, one could write a letter to the School Committee of any length, and then summarize the points in three minutes.

  5. Public comment at public meetings is vital for a board or committee’s understanding the community’s issues and ideas. In my experience I have learned that some folks with important things to contribute can communicate effectively in no other way. Also I find meeting times are the moment committee members set aside for “quality time” to tackle their agendas – we are ready to give the issues our entire intellectual capacity without the myriad distractions of the day job and family – so it is a fertile time for comments.

    But I have also learned that public comment can be wielded to choke off that vital flow and exchange of ideas – provocative language and presentation of ideas, even valuable ideas, can effectively stop someone with another idea presenting it. Board members expect to be thick skinned, the public isn’t and shouldn’t need to be and public comment does flow in all directions impacting everyone.

    Our rules of decorum, time limits, language guide lines, recognize this: It is one of the hardest tasks for the facilitator (chair) of a meeting to use them wisely to preserve the space for everyone to be heard in , to understand what in a comment is constructive and what is not. It is a human temptation to just speak more loudly or beat someone over the head to sway a conversation. It is the chair’s duty getting ahead of the destructive presentations and preventing them stopping the exchange of ideas vital to our community.

    I would offer that applying the policy of the School Committee in support of the principles that assure everyone feels safe sharing their ideas and concerns is principally up to the Chair. Unfortunately when there is abuse of that assurance it might be the right thing to rescind the privilege of an individual at that moment speaking to the board in public. Also I would offer that; even when it is the right thing cutting someone off it is still the Chair’s duty to understand and to incorporate into the board’s work the underlying constructive ideas by whatever other means are appropriate and to be clear of that understanding to everyone involved.

  6. Does the person whose integrity, fairness, and performance is being attacked have a full and free opportunity to respond directly, either orally or in writing? If not, then I think it is incumbent on the relevant committee to keep the public commenter’s remarks in bounds. The public commenter has other avenues, in writing to the committee or supervisor, or to the papers, to impugn people.

    I personally am weary of a town whose videotaped meetings have, with some regularity, become a verbal shooting gallery for public employees, many of whom have no opportunity to defend themselves publicly. And, yes, given how skilled residents are here at verbal violence, it is worse here.


  7. The School Committee doesn’t hire Principals, it’s not their job. Why do people think the School Committee has anything to do with hiring?

    And what do they hope to accomplish, except to give us a heart attack? You know, like Jack Heffley. They are volunteers serving our community and should not have to fear for their life. The SC did exactly the right thing.

    Public comment should be at the end, that would solve it.

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