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Do Not Limit Free Speech

highline school district

BLUF- Increase speech, don’t take away.

Highline Public School (HPS) Board of Directors will be voting on the proposed “School Board Procedure 1430p” next Wednesday, which governs public comment to them. However, there is no justification for amending this policy which REDUCES the speaking time and dictates what comments may be heard by these government officials.  

The timing of this critical change to our free speech is highly suspicious, given the vociferous pushback the Board has recently heard against their policies. Given the district’s tenuous relationship with the 1st Amendment, it is no surprise that they would desire to limit speech directed at them. Unfortunately for the Board of Directors, the US Supreme Court wrote in a 9-0 decision: “against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) | Wex | US Law | LII / Legal Information Institute (cornell.edu)  

While governments are legally allowed to limit constitutionally-protected speech in time/place/manner, cutting the allowed time per person in half, and eliminating “non-scheduled communications” altogether, contravenes these allowable limitations on speech and may put Highline Public Schools in legal jeopardy. The Board’s stated desire for shorter board meetings should not obviate their constituent’s Constitutional right to petition them for a redress of grievances (see US Constitution…Bill of Rights…Amendment I). This proposed policy is not reasonable, nor is deciding what they hear from their constituents, based on their proposed agenda item prioritization rubric. 

Additionally, the district’s current procedure for signing up to speak is an unreasonable rule which does not foster goodwill or communication between the school board and the citizenry. The procedure puts up unnecessary bureaucratic barriers to free speech that benefits only the district. 

For example, the existing Rules for Public Testimony and How to Sign Up to Address the Board reads: “The School Board Office will take sign-ups for the public testimony…until 12:00 pm the day of the meeting” publictestimony.pdf (finalsite.net). This rule seems arbitrary; there is no good excuse for such a restriction on petitioners. To wit, what if someone who politically agreed with a Director wanted to speak, but missed the noon deadline by two hours, thus being denied the usual allotted time of four minutes of redress to the Board? They have just missed the opportunity to have their opinions publicly validated.

Whereas I don’t believe there should be ANY such restrictions or that people should be required to request permission from HPS to speak during the scheduled public comment segment, the bureaucrat who compiles and organizes the speakers would still have FOUR hours before the meeting to make any adjustments to the agenda. Indeed, people can speak to almost any local City Council or even an Olympia Legislative committee without such rules, needing only to sign in beforehand for public records purposes. No administrative convenience to HP’s bureaucrats is worth violating someone’s constitutional rights.  

For those citizens who miss the mandatory call-in sign-up opportunity altogether but still wanted to make a two-minute comment at the end of the board meeting (during “unscheduled public comments”), the Board’s proposed plan to eliminate such comments smacks of a government that is avoiding public comment. 

We, the people, taxpayers, and parents alike, come to the Board meetings in good faith to share our opinions and concerns with our elected officials on how Highline schools are being governed. The Board should increase the public’s opportunity to comment, not winnow out our voice. 

Respectfully submitted,

James Payne

North Hill Parent of 2

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