Our Opinion: Worthy civics lesson plays out in Wilson schools’ boardroom

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When civics teachers at Fike, Hunt and Beddingfield high schools look for examples of the democratic process in action, they needn’t look further than their own school district’s downtown Wilson boardroom.

The Wilson County Board of Education’s transformation from an unwitting First Amendment scofflaw to an unwieldy bureaucracy to, finally, a responsive representative body, serves as an object lesson for students and parents contemplating the prospect of positive change on the local government level.

Policy 2310, which addresses public participation at school board meetings, is just one of thousands of rules, regulations and codified procedures Wilson County Schools maintains in its voluminous policy manual. Yet it implicates the freedom of speech and the relationship between elected officials and their constituents, drawing parallels that predate the U.S. Constitution.

After all, what is voicing a complaint at the school board podium if not exercising the right to petition government for redress of grievances? That individual right was first established in the Magna Carta.

Policy 2310 was adopted in July 1995 after the N.C. General Assembly passed a law requiring municipal, county and school system governing boards to hold at least one public comment period each month. It had last been revised in 2010 when invoked in April of this year to censor parent speakers who sought to extol the virtues of a soccer coach who had briefly been suspended.

That version forbade speakers from addressing any personnel matter during time reserved for public comment. Not only was that prohibition presumptively unlawful, but it also was selectively enforced, as past comments praising teachers and recognizing individual employees had not been curtailed. After The Wilson Times editorial page cited the rule as a First Amendment violation, school board attorney Brian Shaw redrafted the policy and board members adopted the new version in May.

The May 21 policy dispensed with the ban on discussing school system employees but instituted a three-day advance registration requirement and a rule that administrators must screen speakers’ talking points before they’re granted an audience. It seemed the strategy was to manage the risk of critical comments by installing hurdles to reduce public participation.

Parents weren’t happy when the new policy was unveiled. One concerned citizen, Rhyan Breen, wrote that procedural restrictions were potent curbs on free speech. He filed for and eventually won the school board’s District 7 seat, and while the public comment rules were far from his only concern, they were emblematic of a school board that too often found itself out of step with Wilson County residents.

In the seven months between the policy’s adoption and replacement, the public and press called for change. We mounted an editorial campaign opposing the speaker restrictions and facilitated communication between the board and its constituents by publishing school board members’ contact information in this space.

All three candidates for the District 7 board seat — Breen, Wayne Willingham and Stephanie Cyrus — endorsed a framework more favorable to free speech. Two incumbents, Beverly Boyette and Debora Powell, did the same in our annual candidate questionnaire, and Boyette took the lead on striking the three-day signup and advance screening requirement from the rulebook. The new and vastly improved public comment policy was adopted on Dec. 19.

Today, any member of the public can show up 30 minutes before the school board’s monthly meetings and sign up to speak. Administrators won’t demand to know what you plan to say before you say it, though the channels of communication are open for parents who seek to involve school officials.

It’s to the Wilson County Board of Education’s credit that public comment rights were restored and enhanced through the democratic process, not through lawsuits or legislative involvement. When we took exception with board members’ votes, we used this space to object in bold, unambiguous language, but we were careful to avoid vilifying our elected officials or allowing professional criticism to lapse into personal attacks.

All involved can rightly declare victory. Wilson County parents won the right to speak openly without jumping through needless hoops and subjecting themselves to prior review. The Times influenced public policy to effect changes that respect both the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment. And our school board members listened to their constituents and won themselves respect as credible open government allies.

“You can’t fight City Hall,” posits a cynical old cliché. Well, sometimes you can. And sometimes you don’t have to fight — you need only marshal the courage of your convictions to persuade and to lead.

That’s the kind of lesson worthy of study and emulation for our students, the next generation of Wilson voters, parents, public speakers, elected officials and journalists.