EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 26, 2014

Timberlane School Board bars members from talking to press

Chairman speaks for board, raising concern for some

By Alex Lippa

---- — PLAISTOW — The Timberlane Regional School Board has barred all members from speaking to the press, except the chairman.

The rule is one of eight approved by the board, 7-2, at its first meeting after Town Meeting.

“This is a rule which has always been in our operating procedure,” Chairman Nancy Steenson of Danville said. “Now, we have decided to just put some rules down on paper.”

The rule states that all communication with the press will be done by the chairman. Board members contacted by reporters are not allowed to comment, but are directed to tell them to contact the chairman.

“It makes a lot of sense because we want to send out a unified voice as a board,” Steenson said. “We’re here to serve Timberlane and we’re here to do the best by Timberlane. It wouldn’t be in anyone’s best interest to do otherwise.”

Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said he wasn’t sure if there were any laws in place to prevent the rule, but he said he doesn’t agree with it.

“An elected person has the right to speak their mind,” Scanlan said. “You don’t see the Speaker of the House saying, ‘I’m the only one to speak for this body.’”

Timberlane School Board members Donna Green of Sandown and Peter Bealo of Plaistow were the only members to vote against adopting the rules. Green declined to comment yesterday; Bealo could not be reached for comment.

But at the School Board meeting last Thursday, both spoke against the proposal.

“I understand that the chair speaks for the board, but prior to something being discussed and voted upon, I believe we each have the ability to discuss things with the press,” Bealo said at the meeting. “I’m not going to vote in favor of something that says I cannot speak to the press under any circumstances.”

Green agreed with Bealo.

“I understand the need for solidarity, but we didn’t give up the right to free speech,” she said at the meeting. “We have equal authority and we should be free to express our opinions before and after a vote. We are not here for the board, but for the people we represent and the students of the district.”

The rules were written by Rob Collins of Danville, former chairman and current board member. At the meeting, Collins said the rules were not about limiting opinions.

“There’s a lot of information exchanged about issues all the time, so the chair is in the best position to share the most up-to-date information about Timberlane,” Collins said then. “We don’t want yesterday’s information going into the newspaper when it could have changed 180 degrees in the last 24 hours.”

While the rule limits communication with the media, Steenson said, board members are still free to speak to their constituents.

“People are free to call their representatives if they have any issues,” she said. “The press is one way to get information, but it’s not the only way.”

In some other local school districts, board chairmen saw no problem with other members speaking to the press.

“As long as they make it clear that they are speaking as an individual person, and not for the entire board, I’ve got no issues with it,” Pelham School Board Chairman Brian Carton said. “I certainly wouldn’t tell a board member that they can’t talk to press. People have a right to speak.”

Salem School Board Chairman Bernard Campbell said this board doesn’t have any policies that limit communication with the press.

“I think our board and current members are very competent to decide when they feel that comments should come directly from the superintendent on an issue, and when that’s not the case,” he said.

But Derry School Board Chairman Brenda Willis said it has been the practice of her board for a long time.

“We speak with one voice,” she said. “It’s part of the job of the chairman of the board. We generally have consensus of what someone would be speaking of.”

But the Derry School Board does not specifically ban members from speaking to reporters.

“People do have freedom of speech,” Willis said. “But I would expect them to make it clear that they are speaking as a resident, not for the board.”

Gilles Bissonnette, staff attorney for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, said it is hard to enforce prior restraint, but did believe the Timberlane School Board is limiting free speech.

“Commenting to the press is a quintessential activity of a politician, where they communicate their ideas to their constituents,” he said.

Michael Mascola of Atkinson was the only other Timberlane Regional School Board member to comment on the rules.

“It is a great idea because it presents harmony of sending a unified message,” Mascola said. “I have the ability to give my view to my chairperson and I have all the faith that she can share that message with the press.”