The American Civil Liberties Union is questioning the Irvine Unified School District board’s policy of stopping any public commenters from criticizing their staff’s work in a new letter to the panel last Tuesday. 

The letter came after Irvine resident Debra Kamm repeatedly questioned the work of staff members at the district, saying they’d started pushing back against her after she submitted a complaint alleging that district staff were discriminating against children with disabilities. 

When she attempted to reach out to the board to speak about the issue via email, her email address was blocked. 

When she spoke at the board’s April 19 meeting, she questioned the performance of the district’s special education director and was chastised by board president Ira Glasky, who said under the board’s policies she could not talk about “initiating or making any allegations against individual employees,” from the podium. 

The policy he referenced was titled 9323 Rules of Conduct, and includes two clauses the ACLU called out as unconstitutional. 

“No person shall orally initiate charges or complaints against individual employees of the District at a public meeting of the Board,” the rules read. “All such charges or complaints shall be presented to the Superintendent and/or the Board in writing, signed by the complainant.” 

The rules also include a section blocking anyone from making comments that reflect adversely on the staff and board. 

“Remarks by any person addressing the Board which reflect adversely upon the racial, religious, economic, or political views, character or motives of any person on the staff, and Board, or at the meeting are out of order.” 

The rules also state that it’s at the board president’s discretion whether or not to allow the person to keep talking if they’re violating those rules. 

Glasky did not respond to requests for comment on this issue, forwarding questions to the district’s spokesperson Annie Brown. 

In a statement to Voice of OC, Brown said while school board members can stop residents from speaking on issues not within the board’s power at meetings, they cannot revoke their right to speak or stop them from speaking at any future meetings – but they can if people talk about employees.

Brown argued that challenging individual staff members’ work was outside the board’s jurisdiction, and because the board has no control over it, people aren’t allowed to speak on that issue. 

“We have provided, within the same policy, information on how to properly address complaints about individual employees,” Brown wrote. “As part of our commitment to continuous improvement, we want to hear and address complaints.” 

The ACLU is arguing that both of those restrictions are unconstitutional because of how much they restrict what commenters can ask about. 

“It is a bedrock principle of free speech that ‘a speaker may not be stopped from speaking because the moderator disagrees with the viewpoint he is expressing,’” wrote Peter Eliasberg, the Southern California ACLU’s chief counsel. “(The school board code) prohibits ‘adverse’ comments while allowing positive or neutral comments.”

The civil rights group also took issue with another rule, which forces speakers to identify themselves with their name and address, claiming that commenters wouldn’t criticize the board if they knew where they lived. 

“The Rules of Conduct, especially considered together with Mr. Glasky’s threat to ban Mrs. Kamm from addressing the Board in the future, suggest an unacceptable pattern of silencing dissent and criticism,” Eliasberg wrote in the conclusion. “The Rules are plainly unlawful … and the Board must rescind them.” 

At their meeting on Tuesday night, board members didn’t directly address the ACLU letter, but said a “number of items,” were brought up regarding their policy on public comments. 

“I appreciate the feedback we’ve received, we do have outside counsel taking a look at it,” Glasky said before public commenters were allowed to speak Tuesday. “To the extent changes are needed and required we will bring it back to the board for approval at a future meeting.” 

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Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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