A couple of local school districts have made moves recently that suggest they don’t like public criticism and want to restrict it.
We start in the Fox C-6 district, which has made a number of egregious moves lately. This time, they sent out threatening letters to residents who dared to speak up against the status quo:
Lawyers for the Fox School District have sent letters to four vocal critics warning them to tone down their behavior or face legal action.
The four who received letters, Sam Ferry, Michelle Tyler, Dennis Mueller and Richard Simpson, say the district mischaracterized what they have done and that they are being unfairly targeted by an administration seeking to silence them. They say the action threatens their right of free speech.
The district says its only intent is to stop threats, defamation and harassment.
In Arnold, the term “harassment” can be defined as “oversight and criticism of one’s work.” See: Bob Shockey.
So what we see here is that several residents are doing their civic duty by attending school board meetings, keeping up with district happenings, expressing their opinions, and discussing issues with their friends and neighbors. What kind of “threats” and “defamation” have they put forth?
Ferry is accused of telling administrators and parents, as well as former and current district employees, of his intent to see two district administrators fired and of making defamatory posts on the Topix website about the administration.
Tyler’s letter said she allegedly told parent-teacher associations, parents and community members that she wants two administrators fired and made a Facebook post “suggesting physical harm” to an administrator.
I have been the subject as well as my parents of many false, defamatory and slanderous comments [on Topix] over the past couple of years because of my efforts to educate our school board and inform the public…The first slanderous comment directed at my parents and I was posted only a week after I spoke at the December 2010 school board meeting and 2 days before an article was published in the Leader newspaper about the newly appointed head football coach at Seckman High School. What a coincidence! Especially given the fact that there were only 7 people in attendance at the December 2010 board meeting besides the board members and administrators. Those in attendance included myself, a reporter from the Leader and a few students and a couple of accountants
It sounds like some people tied to the Fox administration are indeed quite familiar with the Topix website.
Simpson responds to his threat letter here:
My letter stated that I had called Ruth Ann Newman “a liar” and that I had used other defamatory and derogatory comments which of course I never did. But, that is the typical misrepresentation of fact and tactic typically used in a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) type of lawsuit or threat of a lawsuit in order to silence and intimidate critics of a governmental body.
A Washington University professor and 1st Amendment expert had this to say:
“It is generally very suspicious for the government to tell people to stop talking,” said Greg Magarian, a Washington University law professor who is an expert on the First Amendment. He also said there is a very high standard to prove defamation against a public official, and was dubious of the claim that putting up signs was harassment.
That just about sums it up. This is more evidence we need change at Fox C-6. I recommend votes for Mark Jones and Steve Holloway next week.
Now, on to De Soto. This example is more benign, but still seems to be oriented towards shutting people up. The Leader reported on statements from the superintendent and board president in its March 7 edition:
The statements inform the public that board members will not be able to discuss confidential matters out-of-school, so to speak, and that patrons should take their concerns to the proper administrator first, rather than to individual board members.
Seems innocent enough, but then there’s this statement in the board president’s statement:
The Board recognizes that unique circumstances led to staff and community taking the steps to approach us in the ways that have occurred recently. We sincerely appreciate the confidence shown in us as a Board to hear those concerns brought before us. That being said though, we (Board) are very disappointed that things developed to a point where those staff members, and community members, felt that their only recourse was to come directly to the Board, without first exhausting the full chain of command. It is our responsibility and directive as a Board, as communicated above, that provisions be put back in place that develop confidence and communication with those in the chain who will be diligent as they address concerns in the future.
These recent circumstances, I assume, refer to the firing of superintendent Andy Arbeitman (who Fox just happily hired) and/or the controversy over a new grading system. In these cases (the first one obviously), people were probably getting the run-around, or feared retaliation, from the administration, and so naturally they talked to their elected representatives. Nothing wrong with that. The point of these statements, though, seems to be to stop people from taking issues to their board members. It is odd, though, that all four board members present at the meeting endorsed the board statement. It may just be that this is intended to be a kumbayah moment for the administration, board, and residents of De Soto. Still, it gives me pause.