Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District (GCISD) released the new guidelines on August 22 saying that they were issued “in response to audience disruptions and a general lack of decorum at recent GCISD Board meetings that impeded the orderly conduct of the meeting.”
Carroll Independent School District (CISD) also announced new protocols “as a result of consultation and collaboration with [d]istrict administration and city officials, and in response to incidents of disruption at recent Carroll Independent School District Board meetings.”
While the Texas Government Code allows reasonable limits on public comments at a school board meeting, the limits must not discriminate against a specific viewpoint or violate the First Amendment.
The new protocols are raising concerns among school district families who believe they are violations of the law.
Mitchell Ryan, a Grapevine resident and CISD parent who attends many school board meetings, understands why they are implementing the new rules because “they don’t want these meetings to get out of control. There have been borderline assaults.” However, Ryan has concerns about the breadth of the rules.
In an open letter to the CISD school board, Southlake Families, a local political action committee opposed to the measures, addressed several of the new rules.
Both GCISD’s and CISD’s new rules prohibit audience members from bringing signs into the chamber during the board meeting. GCISD also prohibits “apparel used as signage” and adds that audience members may be asked to turn their shirts inside out.
Southlake Families suggested that “[t]his rule, in fact, is an unconstitutional restraint on speech and a citizen’s right to petition.” It pointed to a case involving the Plano Independent School District where the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals said in 2003, “The activities in which [the parents] engaged—specifically, speaking, leafletting, circulating petitions, displaying signs, and disseminating literature on matters of public concern—are activities that are considered fundamental First Amendment rights.”
The Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) also cites this case in its guidance to school boards about public comments and the Texas Open Meetings Act.
TASB advises school boards that members of the public may display signs at school board meetings, but that “reasonable limitations on content and time, place, and manner restrictions for the display of signs and posters may still apply.”
However, both CISD and GCISD protocols prohibit signs at the meetings altogether.
Another new rule that has parents concerned is the prohibition by both school boards against naming specific staff members during public comments and against ”attacks of a personal nature against school board members.”
The Texas Government Code does not allow a school board to “prohibit public criticism of the governmental body, including criticism of any act, omission, policy, procedure, program, or service.”
In its guidance, TASB states that the Texas Government Code does not require school boards to “allow public criticism that is otherwise prohibited by law,” but it also advises school boards to seek the counsel of their attorneys in developing policies to ensure they are “reasonable, viewpoint neutral, and avoid interfering with a person’s rights under any law.”
Ryan believes this restriction is censorship. “They want you to go through the grievance process, which is a kangaroo court that only requires them to hear you, but not take any action.”
At a recent CISD school board meeting, a member of the audience moved into the dais area where the board members are seated during the course of the meeting, alarming one school board member who sought the assistance of the attending law enforcement officer.
Southlake’s Mayor John Huffman said in a Facebook post that the situation was not only a “serious breach of protocol but also a serious public safety issue.”
CISD clarified in its new protocols that “[m]embers of the public will not be allowed to approach or go behind the Board dais at any time unless invited to do so by a Board member or Superintendent.” GCISD’s rules require audience members to remain in their seats.
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Kim Roberts is a reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.