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The silencing of dissent

Rattled by the citizenry’s outrage this summer, the Sarasota School Board majority responds, showing its disdain for the people it serves.

  • Sarasota
  • Opinion
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Hey, Shirley Brown and Jane Goodwin:

You asked for it. You wanted the job.

Deal with it. It’s your job.

Take the heat. Take the criticism.

Let the people speak. Sit as long as it takes. Listen.

Above all, remember this: You are the servants.

It is not the other way around. The taxpayers are not your peon slaves.

School boards across the state and country apparently are rewriting their public comment policies in the wake of angry parents criticizing their school boards over mask mandates and the spreading of critical race theory.

After being the recipients themselves of what Goodwin called citizenry “acrimony” at recent Sarasota County School Board meetings, not surprisingly, she and board Chair Shirley Brown initiated and produced for Tuesday’s meetings options for rewriting the board’s public comment policies.

The overriding theme: Stifle public comment and dissent.

Brown and Goodwin would argue otherwise. They will say the proposed changes are intended to assure that school board meetings will be conducted with proper decorum. Goodwin said Tuesday it’s an effort “to get some guardrails on the whole thing.”

Yes, this summer’s school board meetings became intense at times. Brown called them “out of control.”

But whose fault was that? If you attended or watched any of these meetings, you saw Brown bang her gavel like a flustered schoolteacher, trying to keep her unruly students under control. She barked and yelled and threatened citizens with forced removal from the meetings if they didn’t behave — in effect throwing gas on citizens’ emotions.

It should go without saying: Threatening an already angry citizen just begets more anger.

Oh, all elected officials will say they are in favor of public comment, mind you. And in the preamble to one of the proposed policy changes, it says the obligatory: The board recognizes “the value” and “importance” of public comment. But then the proposed changes enumerate a laundry list of restrictions.

Consider: The current policy consists of only four guidelines (see below). One of the proposals is four pages. What does that tell you?

Most outrageous are the proposed new time limits: three minutes per speaker if 10 or fewer citizens sign up to speak, two minutes per speaker if 11 to 20 sign up and one minute if 21 or more sign up.

If citizens want to make a comment on a subject not on the meeting agenda, they will be given one minute.

This is ludicrous. It is prima facie stifling of speech, debate and dissent — a standard tactic of authoritarians.

There’s more to be outraged about: “No person may address or question board members individually.” Nor would citizens be allowed to record any of the proceedings on their phones. No signs or banners?

This is just so galling. Elected officials want to make all these rules for the citizens they supposedly serve and yet exempt themselves. There is no limit on how long board members can pontificate. And all boards create video recordings of their meetings.

We get it. No one wants public meetings to become raucous circuses, riots and shouting matches. And for the most part, school board and city and county commission meetings are conducted with decorum and respect.

But there are those rare times when the citizenry becomes roiled over a controversy. And it’s then that school board members and city and county commissioners need to realize and accept that they should let their constituents say what is on their minds, however long it takes.

That is democracy. The right to address and redress grievances. Why should school board members have the leeway of saying what they want to bloviate, but not the citizen?

Or think of it this way: When large numbers of citizens show up for a meeting, that is clearly a sign the issue is important, and it is the one time, the rare time, that citizens want to be able to express their views face to face with the people they elect.

Emails, text messages, Facebook posts — none of them is as effective as being in person, looking eye to eye and expressing your views.

If large numbers of the citizenry go to the trouble to attend a board meeting, this is clearly a sign the board should relax its rules and let the public speak. You board members are there for them. Give them their due.

Board members Bridget Ziegler and Karen Rose are right: This is not the time to institute major changes to the board’s public comment policies.



Here's one option for changing the public comment policies

The Sarasota County School Board discussed on Tuesday options for changing its policies regarding public comments during board meetings.

What follows are excerpts from one option, a four-page document entitled “Potential Bylaw, Public Participation at Board Meetings”:

The board recognizes the value to school governance of public comment on educational issues and the importance of allowing members of the public to express themselves on school matters of community interest.

Members of the public shall be given a reasonable opportunity to be heard on a proposition before the board.

For purposes of the policy, a proposition is an item before the board for a vote and includes, but is not necessarily limited to, all items on the agenda noted as unfinished busines, consent and nonconsent.

A proposition may also include a vote on a motion to rescind or to amend action previously taken but does not generally include items on the special order agenda. A proposition does not include items wherever found on the agenda upon which the board votes in its quasi-judicial capacity or under board discussion and information.

The opportunity to be heard need not occur at the same meeting at which the board takes official action on the proposition if the opportunity occurs at a meeting that is during the decision-making process and is within reasonable proximity in time before the meeting at which the board takes the official action.

This policy does not prohibit the board from maintaining orderly conduct or proper decorum in a public meeting.

The opportunity to be heard is subject to policies adopted by the board as follows:


Guidelines on the time a person can address the board:

Agenda Items

  • If there are 10 public speakers or fewer, each speaker shall have three minutes to address the board.
  • If there are 11-20 public speakers, each speaker shall have two minutes to address the board.
  • If there are 21 or more public speakers, each speaker shall have one minute to address the board.
  • Persons will be recognized in the order in which the requests were received.
  • The time period may be extended by a vote of the board.

Selection of additional proposed changes:

  • For all public speakers addressing non-agenda items, each speaker will have one minute to address the board.
  • Procedures for allowing representatives of groups or factions on a proposition to address the board: Rather than all members of groups or factions for or against a proposition addressing the board at meetings which a large number of individuals wish to be heard, the board may require representatives of such groups or factions to address the proposition in their representative capacity.
  • No person may address or question board members individually. Staff members shall not be expected to answer questions from the audience unless called upon by the board chair or the superintendent.
  • No taping or video recordings, signs, flags, banners or other similar items will be permitted.

Presiding officer may:

  • Interrupt, warn or terminate a participant’s statement when the statement is too lengthy, personally directed, abusive, obscene or irrelevant.
  • Request any individual to leave the meeting when that person does not observe reasonable decorum.
  • If a speaker is called during the agenda public comment time, but their comment is not in regard to an agenda item, the presiding officer may terminate their comment move them to the non-agenda portion of the meeting.
  • Request the assistance of law enforcement officers in the removal of a disorderly person when that person’s conduct interferes with the orderly progress of the meeting.

The portion of the meeting during the participation of the public is invited shall be limited to a reasonable time to allow the board to conduct its business in an efficient manner. The above scale of time for public comments is deemed by the board to be reasonable; however should a situation arise that the board believes additional modifications to the public comment times need to be made, the board may make additional adjustments with a majority vote of the board.



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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