A Superior Court Judge recently issued a decision holding that portions of the Natick School Committee's Public Participation at School Committee Meetings Policy (the "Policy") are unconstitutional. The relevant provisions, which are common in similar school committee policies across the Commonwealth, prohibited "improper conduct and remarks" and "defamatory remarks." Although the Policy allowed "objective criticisms of the school operations and programs," it provided that the School Committee would not hear "personal complaints of school personnel nor against any member of the school community."
The Judge, applying well-established First Amendment principles, determined that the public comment portion of a school committee's meeting creates a "designated public forum," meaning that the government body can only restrict statements based on their content when necessary to effectuate a compelling state interest. The School Committee argued that it had such "compelling interests" in trying to protect student and staff privacy, promoting a learning environment that fosters success, maintaining a positive workplace, prohibiting bullying and conducting its business in an orderly and efficient manner.
The Judge acknowledged and agreed with the School Committee's interests and then analyzed those interests in light of the School Committee's statutory authority to hire and fire the superintendent of schools, review and approve budgets, and establish educational goals and policies for the District. In light of the School Committee's legal authority, the Judge distinguished between complaints about school operations and programs, which are within the School Committee's jurisdiction, and personal complaints about staff (excluding the Superintendent) and students, which are not. Thus, the Judge concluded the provision of the Policy prohibiting complaints was lawful, except to the extent it prohibited complaints against individuals under the jurisdiction of the School Committee, i.e., the Superintendent of Schools. The Judge also held that the limitation in the Policy to "objective" criticisms was unconstitutional.
With respect to the prohibition on "defamatory" remarks, the Judge held that the Policy could only lawfully be applied to comments that have been found by a court to be defamatory. Other critical comments, however, may not be prohibited simply because they show an individual or the school district in a negative light. The Judge also held that the prohibition of "improper" and "abusive" remarks was not narrowly tailored to meet the School Committee's compelling interest in conducting orderly meetings as the First Amendment only allowed for the prohibition of so-called "fighting words" or threats.
Although Spaulding v. Natick School Committee is only a Superior Court decision and, therefore, not binding on school committees state-wide, the decision appears well-reasoned and supported by other precedent-setting decisions. As such, we recommend that all school committees review their current public comment policies. For school committee policies based upon the MASC's model policies, the relevant policy is BEDH. School committees would be wise to clarify their policies to provide that public comment will only be permitted with regard to matters under the school committee's jurisdiction. In addition, any references, typically in paragraph 4, to "improper" and "abusive" comments should either be stricken or defined as prohibiting only vulgarities, threats or remarks likely to provoke a violent reaction. References to "defamatory" comments should either be deleted or limited to the unlikely comment related to a matter in which a court has already adjudicated a comment as defamatory. References, typically in paragraph 6, to "objective" criticisms should be deleted.
The Judge's full decision, including a description of the specific facts involved, can be found here.
Please contact any member of our Public Education Group if you have any questions or if you need assistance updating your policies regarding public participation at school committee meetings.