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Jeff Whitten: Thoughts on free speech
editor's notes

There is an old saying that goes something like “it’s better to keep quiet and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

I guess I’m your huckleberry today.

As you may know, there’s a discussion of sorts afoot (mostly online, where real life evidently takes place while the rest of us are stuck in traffic) over whether this or that or something else is being taught or should be taught in Bryan County Schools.

While I certainly don’t think kids should be taught to eat crayons and therefore hope our educators are teaching their students to not eat crayons, I’m not qualified to tell a superintendent how to run his classrooms. For one thing, not only am I not a Dad, I don’t care much for kids as a species. In fact, if I were in charge of curriculum it would be all about reading, writing and staying all the way out of my yard.

What’s more, as has been pointed out again and again and again and again and again, this school district fares well by just about any metric one can cook up, and does so without my help. It’s one of the reasons traffic regularly backs up in all sorts of directions. People move here for the schools.

Of more interest to me is an issue raised by two women, Betsy DeBry and Lisa Freeman, who have gone to the school board about their policy and curriculum concerns.

Both women spoke at a meeting in September and both went over their alloted time.

DeBry attempted to get back on the agenda for the January meeting to address the board’s policy on public participation and was told she’d forfeited her right to speak at a school board meeting.

DeBry, who has written a passel of emails to school officials and has had a sit down meeting with some, tried to have her say in public at that January meeting anyway, which led to some video making the rounds of social media and opened her up to accusations of attempting to disrupt a public meeting. Which is not a good thing to do in most cases.

Public meetings are public by nature, but they run by a set of rules to make sure chaos doesn’t happen. It’s why there are usually time limits on speakers, and why you ordinarily can’t just stand up at a city council meeting and rant for 30 minutes about the IRS. That said, I once heard some fellow get up at a school board budget hearing circa 2009 and complain at length about Obamacare.

What else? There can be reasonable restrictions on what should be brought before a school board. A kid’s D in English Lit because the teacher was a twit, for example, is not something best addressed at the BOE level. It’s usually spelled out in a school system policy because if it wasn’t then inevitably some parent will try to take it to the school board and have somebody’s head.

There are other limits. You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater, for example, without getting into trouble if there isn’t a fire. Or slander someone. Free speech is not an absolute.

There can be consequences.

But back to DeBry and Freeman, who are probably in a minority when it comes to their ideas on curriculum. That, by the way, doesn’t matter. It’s precisely because they’re likely a minority that their speech should be protected. And, from what I hear about social media, they might need protection.

Still, when you factor in the fact the women went over their time limit in September, and DeBry had her adventure with the board in January, it’s complicated. At present, both women say they don’t know whether they, or the others who went over the time limit while speaking to the board at the September meeting, will be allowed by this board to speak at a meeting again.

If that’s indeed the case, it wouldn’t surprise me if they don’t push the issue as a violation of their Constitutional right to free speech as far as it can be pushed. Or maybe they’ll grow weary of it and worry about something else.

Or maybe they’ll run for school board.

On that note, I’m sympathetic to current school board members and administrators and teachers, some of whom I know and respect. This is not an easy time to do what they do. Everything seems political, everything seems to come an inch or two short of a fist fight. Classrooms should be a harbor from our inability as “grownups” to treat one another decently, not another battleground.

Yet questions or criticism about what is being taught aren’t always attacks. There has to be room for both if no reason other than Bryan County Schools are public schools, funded by taxpaying members of the public.

Some of those taxpayers are Republican, some are Democrat, some couldn’t care less about party politics and some probably couldn’t spell it. It doesn’t matter. The First Amendment does. That’s why their letters are on this page today.

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