Our own school district, though, has the following section in its Board Governance policy:
Members shall not publicly make or express individual negative judgments about Superintendent or staff performance. Any such judgments of Superintendent performance will be made only by the Board, meeting in executive session as appropriate.I should start by saying that nothing any board member said at Tuesday’s meeting violated this policy. But that doesn’t matter. This is a plainly illegal policy, and the school district should be embarrassed by it.
This policy prohibits public speech on a matter of public interest and concern, which is the kind of speech that the Supreme Court has repeatedly described as being “at the heart of the First Amendment.” Even worse, it discriminates based on the viewpoint of the speaker: Negative speech about the superintendent’s performance is banned, while positive speech is allowed. In First Amendment analysis, viewpoint-based prohibitions on political speech are pretty much as bad as it gets. Policies don’t get much more unconstitutional than this one.
It should go without saying why such a policy is so constitutionally offensive. If the government can prevent the public from hearing viewpoints on one side of an issue while allowing them to hear viewpoints on the other side, members of the public will be deprived of information they need to make informed decisions about policies and about candidates. Such a policy would enable government officials to manipulate public opinion in a way designed to entrench themselves in power.
Moreover, such a policy would make it impossible for board members to do their jobs properly. Any time board members raise a concern about what our district is doing, they can be interpreted as implicitly criticizing the district’s administration or staff. If speech like that were prohibited, discussions at board meetings would become one-sided advertisements for the administration’s point of view. One-sided discussions lead to groupthink, not good decisions. Free and open discussion of issues—including the airing of critical views—is a crucial ingredient of good policymaking.
This is not to say that board members should cavalierly comment on the superintendent’s performance without first thinking through the potential benefits and harms of doing so. But regardless of whether that kind of speech is wise or unwise, the government can’t legally ban it. Our school district—which is responsible for teaching our kids how to become “responsible, independent, lifelong learners capable of making informed decisions in a democratic society”—should know better.