In their haste to create a “unified front” before the public, local town and city boards sometimes take action to suppress opposing viewpoints among their members. These boards, no doubt, mean well. But engaging in censorship of minority perspectives in an attempt to appear “united” is still wrong. It also violates the First Amendment.
Unfortunately, this just happened in Rockingham County.
On March 20, 2014, the Timberlane Regional School Board (which addresses education in Atkinson, Danville, Plaistow, and Sandown) passed internal rules stating that Board members (i) cannot comment to the press and instead must direct press inquiries to the Board Chair, and (ii) must “support” all decisions made by the Board and, thus, are prohibited from engaging in “[e]fforts to undermine a decision” by the Board.
These Rules clearly infringe upon the First Amendment rights of the Board’s members, particularly those who have minority perspectives. On March 28, 2014, the NHCLU sent a letter to the Timberlane Regional School Board demanding that these Rules be immediately repealed.
The basic problem with these Rules is that they ignore the bedrock principle that an elected official enjoys the same free speech rights as any other citizen. Indeed, individuals do not surrender their free speech rights when they become elected officials, and the government may not impose greater speech restrictions on elected officials than it could impose on members of the general public.
Board members are also independently elected, not public employees hired by the Board. Board members are tasked by the voters to exercise independent judgment. They are not required to remain silent or defer to the majority of the Board if they, in exercising this independent judgment, disagree with the Board’s policies. They should be (and are) able to speak their mind, especially through the media which enables political ideas to reach the largest number of constituents. It is the spirit of public political disagreement among our elected officials that is the very cornerstone of a functioning democracy.
Finally, there’s absolutely no compelling governmental interest that could possibly justify such a substantial intrusion on First Amendment rights. The Chair of the Board was recently quoted in the press as stating that these Rules are necessary because “we want to send out a unified voice as a board.” Thus, the Board’s apparent desire appears to be to—under the guise of creating a “united front”—suppress the public speech of Board members who disagree with Board decisions and are inclined to express a view to the press that is inconsistent with the views held by a majority of the Board’s members. This is classic unlawful viewpoint discrimination.
The NHCLU hopes the Timberlane Regional School Board takes the right steps and repeals these unconstitutional Rules.