Constituent policy

Irvine Unified School Board changes policy after ACLU accuses agency of violating free speech

The Irvine Unified School District Board of Trustees changed parts of its policy this week after the American Civil Liberties Union accused the board of violating free speech principles.

The board voted in favor of the changes Tuesday night about two weeks after receiving a letter from the ACLU of Southern California claiming that the Irvine School Board violated 1st Amendment rights by enforcing Board Policy 9323, which is a set of rules for public meetings. . In the May 24 letter, the civil rights group asked the board to repeal or change the policy.

The letter discusses the example of one specific resident, Debra Kamm, whose email was allegedly blocked in March by the school district after she filed a complaint alleging discrimination against children with disabilities. Kamm tried to address the issue in front of the board in mid-April and into May, but was reprimanded by board chair Ira Glasky for violating board policy. administration, says the letter.

“The recent enforcement of these rules at IUSD board meetings, along with the board’s choice to respond to a constituent’s criticism by blocking all messages from her, suggests that the board is committed in a misguided attempt to insulate themselves from public comment and criticism,” the letter said.

The ACLU took umbrage at a few specific rules in the policy, including one that the nonprofit law firm said prevented residents from complaining about district employees in public meetings. Rather, the policy only allowed residents to submit their criticisms “to the superintendent and/or council in writing, signed by the complainant.”

Another rule prohibited comments that “negatively reflect the opinions, character, or racial, religious, economic, or political motives of any staff and board member.” The chairman of the board also had the authority to end a speaker’s comment time under this rule, according to the letter.

The final rule the ACLU was targeting required people addressing the board to provide their name and address.

“The rules of conduct, particularly viewed with Mr. Glasky’s threat to bar Ms. Kamm from addressing the board in the future, suggest an unacceptable pattern of silencing dissent and criticism,” the letter said. “Furthermore, the council’s decision to block Ms Kamm in response to her concerns about matters of public interest indicates that the council is more concerned with avoiding unpleasant or embarrassing criticism than with hearing and taking concerns seriously. public.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Glasky said the council had “never prevented anyone from speaking to the council who wished to do so.”

He continued: “In fact, we have done our best to allocate extra time to important and controversial issues so that everyone has the opportunity to address [them], and I think that’s important. So any claims or statements to the contrary that we were in fact limiting speech, that’s just not accurate. However, the policy must reflect what the current law is, and so I appreciate the opportunity for us to do so.

The board amended a number of rules addressed by the ACLU, including the element requiring a name and address. The policy now states that “persons attending board meetings should not be asked to register, complete a questionnaire, or provide their name or other information as a condition of attending the meeting.”

Despite the school board’s quick action, Zoë McKinney, an ACLU attorney who specializes in the 1st Amendment, said on the phone Wednesday that the amended policy still had outstanding issues.

“They responded very quickly to our last letter,” she said. “So we appreciate that they were willing to revise and review their own policies so quickly. Reading the news, it’s clear that the changes were made in an effort to protect free speech, the right to criticize, and the principles of access to government. But we believe that the policies are still insufficient in several respects. »

McKinney said his main concern is that the amended policy now gives the chairman of the board complete discretion to determine whether a topic is appropriate or not.

“Which is just too much discretion to give to one person,” she said. “It’s also very vague because I don’t know what ‘appropriate’ means in this context.”

McKinney also still has a problem with the part of the policy dealing with speaker identification, as the new rule does not specify that a person should not have to give their name to comment during the meeting. It states that people should not be required to provide this information as a condition of attending the meeting.

“We understand that from an administrative point of view, in order to organize a meeting, you must have some kind of registration to comment, but what other jurisdictions have done is put on the comment card or request a speaker a clear statement that you are permitted to use a pseudonym during registration,” McKinney said.

McKinney said she will take her concerns to the school district this week.

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