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Proposed Groton Board of Education policy raises free speech concerns

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published May 20. 2013 4:00AM
Complaints about employees would be barred at meetings

Groton - A school board committee is considering a policy that would prohibit people from complaining about school employees during board meetings and warn speakers they could be held "legally responsible" if their comments defame or invade the privacy of others.

The policy was bought forward by the policy committee on May 13 and was referred back for further review at the next committee meeting on June 17.

"Obviously, we're going to relook at this because there is such an outcry, and obviously people don't understand the intent," said Patricia Doyle, the chairwoman of the policy committee. She said board Vice Chairwoman Beth Gianacoplos suggested a policy to set ground rules for decorum at meetings and the group looked at examples from the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education for guidance.

"We absolutely are not trying to stifle anyone's free speech, but basically just to set some guidelines," Doyle said.

Natalie Billing, a former member of the Representative Town Meeting, told the board Monday she believes the proposed policy violates the right to free speech, intimidates people who would otherwise speak and sends the message that "we don't want to hear from you."

"To elevate your responsibility to protect staff reputations over the free speech rights of the public I believe is a mistake," she told the board. "Children, through their parents, have the right to make known their concerns about staff behavior."

Billing said she was also troubled by the timing of the proposal.

The debate comes after the school board dealt with two highly publicized accusations against employees last year.

Last spring, a fourth-grade teacher at Northeast Academy was placed on leave after a parent complained that her son was told to hold a paper towel in his mouth to keep from talking.

Parents tried to speak about the teacher at a school board meeting and were told it wasn't allowed. The teacher is now working at another Groton School.

In August, complaints against former Superintendent Paul Kadri were made public through an investigative report that said his executive assistant complained he abused and threatened her. The report also contained accusations from other women about similar conduct.

Kadri was fired March 5 after an arbitrator found he "engaged in conduct warranting termination of his employment."

Martin Margulies, professor emeritus at the Quinnipiac University School of Law, said people can always be held accountable for defamation.

But as a practical matter, he said it would be hard to prove.

Margulies, who has represented the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut in free speech cases, said teachers and administrators are considered "public figures" under Connecticut case law, so a speaker can't defame them by giving an honest opinion about their professional behavior or even misstating facts the speaker believes are true.

"A public figure cannot win a defamation suit unless he can prove that the person whom he is suing deliberately lied," Margulies said.

Speaking as a professor and not for the ACLU, Margulies said a school board may prohibit comments unrelated to its agenda or complaints that seek formal disciplinary action against a teacher.

But the board cannot discriminate based on viewpoint, he said. For example, if someone is allowed to praise the superintendent during a meeting, then someone else must be allowed to criticize the superintendent. Similarly, if someone is allowed to praise a teacher, someone else must be allowed to complain.

"Suppose you have an agenda item about a school trip. And you have a parent who says, 'I want you to know that teacher so-and-so did a wonderful job on that school trip," he said. "In that case, the school board would have to allow someone else to say, 'No, she didn't do a wonderful job. She did an awful job.'"

To stifle that expression would be a violation of the speaker's First Amendment rights, he said.

He said the Groton Board of Education can educate itself and learn the easy way, or be sued and learn the hard way.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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