SANDOWN – At the first meeting of the new Timberlane Regional School District school board, members voted to restrict all communication with the press to the chair. That led to a letter from the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union arguing that the action violates free speech.
The Timberlane District encompasses Sandown, Danville, Plaistow and Atkinson.
The board remains mostly unchanged after the March elections, the only new member being Sandown’s Donna Green. In recent months Green has drawn the ire of former school board chair Rob Collins of Danville, superintendent Earl Metzler and members of the Timberlane budget committee, when as a member of the budget committee, she regularly spoke out.
At the board’s organizational meeting, new chair Nancy Steenson of Danville asked all members to agree to eight new rules put in writing by Collins. While Steenson and Collins said the rules being reviewed had long been informally followed, agreement on that point was not unanimous among board members.
While Green took exception to several of the rules, the most contested and discussed was a restriction on talking to the press. Plaistow board member Peter Bealo initially took exception to the rule.
Bealo said he agreed that the chair may speak for the board as a whole, especially after a vote has been taken on a given issue, but he was not comfortable with giving up his right to talk with the press.
“I believe we each have the ability to discuss things with the press and I’m not willing to vote for something that says I can’t,” he said.
Steenson argued that uniformity of opinion from the board was important. She asked what it would look like for the district if a newspaper called each of the nine members and each gave a different response.
Collins argued that the communication between the chair and the superintendent is constant and thus the chair was in the best position to give out accurate, up-to-date information.
“It’s not to stifle people’s voices,” Collins claimed. “The idea behind this is so we don’t have yesterday’s information going out in a newspaper article when it could’ve turned 180 degrees in the last 24 hours and no one would know that but the board chair and the superintendent.”
Atkinson member Michael Mascola blamed newspapers for forcing the requirement. “The paper is looking for headlines. All they’re looking for is dirt, and their reputation for accuracy is low,” Mascola said, adding that he didn’t see the benefit of talking with the press and was instead in favor of communicating through press releases.
Collins later agreed, stating that the press was looking to dig up dirt.
Metzler said it was more efficient and effective to have a single message coming out of the board. He argued that contrary opinions should not be fleshed out in public or in the press, but instead at board meetings.
For her part, Green focused on the potential restriction of her right to free speech.
“I understand the need for solidarity and a single voice, but when we got elected, we didn’t give up our right to free speech. We each have equal authority, and I feel we should be able to freely express our opinions,” said Green. “This is way too restrictive for free speech rights and as elected representatives, we are here not for the board, we are here for the people we represent and the students of the district.”
Bealo concurred with the idea that board members were there for their constituents.
Steenson shook her head while Bealo spoke. Bealo noted that there was past precedent that argued that board members did not always choose to speak to the press when asked.
Bealo stated, “Treat us like adults.”
Steenson said the elected school board members were like the school’s staff in that the staff may have many opinions on the direction of the district but they channeled their message through administration. “It’s in no way a suppression of free speech,” she said.
Green noted later that there was a difference between employees of an organization and elected officials, and as such “we need to jealously guard our ability to speak.”
Green took exception to a number of the rules presented that night, stating that she saw many of them as an effort to suppress the minority opinion.
Metzler responded that the difficult work was to weave in the minority opinion with the majority and he thinks if people would look to the work being done by the district, they’d see that serious efforts are made to do so.
Collins added that the point of the rules was not to suppress any opinion but to guard against undermining board decisions. He stated concerns with a dissatisfied member going out into the public after a vote to begin a movement to undermine a board decision.
Last budget season, the budget committee floated a motion to censure Green for having spoken with the Sandown board of selectmen on the budget. At that time Collins, school board ex-officio, argued that if members were to speak in public, they should have a Timberlane administrator alongside them. Metzler agreed.
The motion to censure Green failed 3-4.
Green also refused to sign a school board pledge that she said could restrict her ability to blog about school board affairs.
The pledge states that the member will “take no private action which will compromise the board’s actions or decisions, and respect such actions made by the majority vote or consensus of the board.”
Steenson said that while all were entitled to their own opinion, she questioned whether Green had intentions of compromising board decisions.
Green said she did not but feared that her actions could be interpreted as such without her intention.
The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union (NHCLU) has since sent a letter to the district arguing that two of the board’s rules violate the First Amendment. The letter, sent by staff attorney Gilles Bissonnette, states that should the rules in question not be repealed immediately, the NHCLU would “act accordingly.”
The NHCLU cites rule seven, which restricts members from speaking out against board decisions and rule eight, the restriction on communication with the press.
The core of the argument Bissonnette makes is that the rules ignore the fact that elected officials enjoy the same speech rights of any other citizen, and while they may have been made in earnest, the rules are problematic because they constitute government action to restrict free expression of ideas.
Asked about the letter, Bissonnette spoke of how free speech rights, and the right for elected individuals to disseminate their ideas through the press, is a bedrock principle of a functioning democracy. It’s a necessary tool for politicians to speak to constituents and one that helps citizens make informed decisions about their elected leaders.
He also weighed in on rule seven, which represents some members’ concern that the board’s majority opinion could be undermined by a minority voice.
Bissonnette said members were independently elected for their individual judgment and the idea that a meeting was the only place to air contrary opinions was not consistent with the First Amendment.
Bissonnette said the school district’s attorney had responded to the letter by phone but as of press time Tuesday, the two had not discussed the matter.