Overreaching New School Board Policy Stifles Free Speech

New Board of Governance policies recently approved by the San Diego Unified School Board ban school board members from publicly expressing “negative judgments” about the superintendent or staff performance. Violation of the new rule may result in removal from leadership positions or committee posts, or public censure by the Board.

The ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties challenges the new policies in a demand letter sent to the school district’s general counsel today, saying that the policies “curtail core political speech” based on viewpoint or content (Leventhal v. Vista Unified School Dist.)

“Individuals do not surrender their free speech rights when they become elected officials,” wrote David Blair-Loy, legal director of the ACLU. “The public is…entitled to unfettered expression of board members’ opinions on board decisions,” he wrote, adding that without full and open discussion of board members’ positions on important public issues, the public would be unable to hold officeholders accountable at the ballot box.

“The school district is a public agency and cannot be run like a private corporation,” said Blair-Loy. “Frankly, this is an outrageous violation of speech that undermines democracy.”

The Voice of San Diego reported that the new policies grew out of a desire to stem the discord between district employees and the school board, quoting the last superintendent, Carl Cohn, as saying the district had “a culture of conflict.”

The ACLU demand letter notes that no matter how laudable the purpose of or motivation behind the new policies are, they nonetheless constitute an undue restriction on freedom of speech.

The letter calls on the school district to revise the policies so they conform to constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the public’s right to be fully informed of its elected officials’ positions on important educational matters.