Sunday, October 28, 2012

Free Speech takes a hit: Bentonville School Board members discuss Draconian changes to public comment policy

Posted By on Sun, Oct 28, 2012 at 12:03 PM

It’s sort of intriguing how the most conservative of communities, ones where the words “Freedom and Liberty” might be expected to be emblazoned on the uniforms of city employees, find certain freedoms to be inconvenient at times.

The Bentonville School Board, during their retreat on Saturday, discussed making some changes to their public comment policy that would have the folks in some cities - Fayetteville, for example - storming the ramparts.

According to Tony Prothro, assistant director of the Arkansas School Boards Association, “open mic” sessions, where members of the public can speak to issues they feel are important, can be a problem at times.

He also said the magic words that so many civic bodies have fallen in love with over the years, that public comments aren’t required, and if they did still choose to offer the service, well, there were ways to get around talking about difficult subjects.

According to this morning’s article in the Northwest Arkansas Times, Prothro went to say:

“Those wishing to speak could be asked to fill out a form before the meeting.”

That way, the listeners-that-be could decide whether or not a person was worthy of addressing them. Because they had read the form, you see, and decided what questions they did or did not want to deal with.

And, of course, the board could limit the member of the public who dared to speak in the first place to only speak about what was on their little form.

Prothro said that residents might want to address personnel matters. At this point one might have to ask, couldn’t someone on the board simply say, “We sorry, but we can’t discuss that.”

Travis Riggs, president of the Bentonville School Board said that they should, indeed, review their comment section. Riggs said that he himself is interested in having the public fill out such forms. He said that the forms would only be used to let the board know what the person is about to address.

No form deviates allowed.

“Requiring them to register beforehand is not taking away their right to speak.,” he added.

Kudos to board member Grant Lightle, who said that he had a problem with any attempt at content restriction.

Public comment sections have long proven to problematic for civic bodies. The Washington County Quorum Court, for example, moved their public comment section to the end of the meeting, rather than the beginning, some years ago. Some bodies simply don’t have them. No fuss, no muss.

Without public comments, elected bodies work in a bubble. The whole notion of having to have your comments “approved” by the body you wish to address is distasteful at the very least.

Quote of the Day

Don’t wait around for other people to be happy for you. Any happiness you get you’ve got to make for yourself. - Alice Walker


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