EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Opinion

April 8, 2014

Editorial: Timberlane fails to embrace spirit of free speech

The Timberlane Regional School Board last week rewrote its rules barring board members from speaking out on issues.

But it’s clear the board still doesn’t get the concept of free speech or understand why those rules were a bad idea to begin with.

First of all, the board made the changes only after the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union said it would take action against the board unless it lifted a gag order on its members and a prohibition on publicly disagreeing with the board’s actions.

The last thing the board wanted was an expensive lawsuit forcing it to defend the indefensible.

But instead of simply striking those clearly unconstitutional rules, the board opted to change them.

One rule stated: “All communications to the press will be provided by the Chair. Board members contacted by the press will not comment and direct the press to contact the Chair.”

The amended rules says members may speak to the press but encourages them to refer questions to the chairman or chairwoman. The current chairwoman, Nancy Steenson, said she never had any intention stifling anyone’s freedom of speech. Too late, the mask has slipped, and the new rules make it clear she would prefer her members shut up.

The second rule that caused the NHCLU to threaten action stated: “All decisions made by the board will be supported by all board members regardless of how a member voted. Efforts to undermine a decision will not be tolerated.”

The revised rule says a board member is “under no obligation to publicly support a board decision and is not restricted from publicly criticizing or expressing opposition to a board decision.”

It’s stunning that the Timberlane School District thought it could control not only what members said but what they thought. It’s stunning, too, that it feels obliged to say dissent by an elected public official is permissible.

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