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School board comment policy questioned

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SMITHFIELD — A media law attorney says the Johnston County Board of Education’s policy of screening public comments before they’re delivered can be used to censor parents and raises First Amendment concerns.

Individuals who wish to address the school board are required to sign up by contacting the school district office 48 hours in advance and “furnish statements or written information prior to the meeting,” according to the current policy. Registered speakers are given five minutes to address the board.

Amanda Martin, general counsel for the North Carolina Press Association, said a mandatory prior review policy would be difficult to justify if challenged on free speech grounds.

“You have to ask yourself why the written remarks are being required, and I can think of no good reason,” Martin said in an email to the Johnstonian News. “Courts are willing to allow what often are called reasonable time, place and manner restrictions, such as limiting the time or requiring sign-up. Those arguably will permit orderly process and prevent any one speaker from dominating the conversation.

“But the advance, written remarks serve no necessary end and create all kinds of opportunities for mischief. What if someone wants to speak but wants to be responsive to the speakers before him? What if someone changes her mind about what she wants to say?”

School board attorney Jimmy Lawrence of Smithfield said the public comment policy is in compliance with state law.

“The reason that section is in the policy is to keep public comments away from addressing confidential personnel information or complaining about personnel issues that are meant to be confidential and should be addressed by human resources or others within the personnel department,” said Lawrence. “It also keeps speakers from bringing up confidential student information and relating information about other students that pursuant to law should be confidential communications.”

N.C. General Statute 160A-68 requires government agencies to keep most personnel information confidential, but Martin explained that the statute is a restriction on public officials.

“Parents have no obligation under personnel statutes,” Martin told The Wilson Times in April 2018. “They do not have the authority, in my opinion, to censor what parents say. If they want to discuss what they have heard, they have some latitude to go into closed session.”

Lawrence said the policy itself is content-neutral and that it’s not designed to exclude particular points of view. He also said he didn’t feel it imposes prior restraint on any speaker who wishes to comment on a subject involving the school board.

“Nor does it preemptively censor any speaker just by the fact that the board chair or superintendent knows what the subject matter of the comment is and what the speaker will say,” said Lawrence. “I would state that the policy, as now written, is reasonable, compliant with statutory provisions and protects the state and federal statutory rights of personnel and students.

“It further allows the board to consider if inflammatory or improper comments that might likely cause a substantial disruption are not published by the speaker.”

Superintendent Ross Renfrow said the school board and Johnston County Public Schools appreciate feedback from community members.

“In my current role as superintendent, as well as my former role as the district’s deputy superintendent who facilitated public comment on a monthly basis for our board, we have always and will continue to offer an attentive ear to those stakeholders who seek to be heard,” Renfrow said.

Board Chairman Mike Wooten said public comments are always welcome at Johnston County school board meetings.

“Policies and procedures for public comments are put in place to protect personal and employee information only and are not written to avoid anyone freedom to voice their concerns or accolades in our public school system,” said Wooten. “Our Board of Education members welcome any stakeholder that wishes to sign up for public comments each and every month.”

School board Vice Chairwoman Peggy Smith said she agrees with the school system’s attorney.

“We have discussed this, but sometimes people would come and talk about discipline issues of a child or performance issues by a staff member by name, which violates privacy laws,” said Smith. “I have no problem with just showing up as is done in some counties, but it is hard when the above issues surface and it is too late to stop the revelation, especially since we are now live-streaming. We always try to continuously improve.”

In neighboring Wilson County, the school board revised its public comment policy following a censorship controversy last year. In an April meeting, the board’s chairwoman interrupted several people who spoke in support of a soccer coach who had been suspended, curtailing their comments under a rule that forbade discussion of personnel matters.

After Martin and other attorneys flagged that policy as presumptively unlawful in comments to The Wilson Times, the Wilson County Board of Education removed the restriction on mentioning specific employees in May.

The replacement policy added a three-day advance registration requirement and directed speakers to divulge what they planned to discuss. Following criticism by the public and press, the Wilson school board dropped those restrictions in December.