Sandra Teramo never got to finish the list of local politicians she blames for the rapid expansion of charter schools in Miami-Dade County. “[State Rep.] Erik Fresen, other politicians such as City Commissioner...''
“Ma’am, I would appreciate it that you don’t mention names,” came the voice of School Board Chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman. “Names are not allowed.”
Interruptions like that often punctuate the public hearing portion of Miami-Dade County School Board meetings, and they tend to come up when someone’s complaining.
“The intent of these policies is to ensure the orderly progress of the public hearing,” reads board attorney Walter Harvey at the start of every public hearing. “Speakers shall not address individual board members by name.”
Similar policies on addressing board members by name are in effect around Florida and throughout the country—at the Miami-Dade County Commission and at school districts from Polk County and Palm Beach to Texas and Wisconsin.
“If you look around to other legislative bodies in the area, I think you’ll find these policies are fairly common,” said Harvey.
But in Miami-Dade, some teachers see a pattern that fits with a history of encouraging parents and teachers not to go public with criticism of the school district, and of incremental changes to the public comment period. “They keep changing the rules to their benefit,” complained Teramo, who has worked as a paraprofessional in Miami-Dade public schools for more than 10 years. “At the beginning, we were allowed to donate [speaking time] to someone else as long as you faxed information in. Then, you had to be present.” Now, speakers are not allowed to donate time at all.
In practice, the prohibition on names goes much further than school board members alone – to the superintendent, local politicians and district staff.
Sometimes it doesn’t apply at all. “I’d like to start off by thanking Dr. Holloway, Dr. Bendross-Mindigall, Dr. Feldman,” United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats said as she began her remarks during a public comment period this spring, mentioning three school board members by name.
At another recent public hearing, board members listened intently as a parent read through a long list of school employees she wanted to praise.
The board might even ask for clarification. Businessman Melvin Sparks came to the microphone to deliver his remarks with a plaque in hand. “We just want to make sure that you guys know that we appreciate you,” he said.
“Who are you talking about here?” Chairwoman Tabares Hantman asked.
Frank Lomonte, a lawyer who runs the Student Press Law Center, said restrictions on speech at public school board meetings appear to be on the rise. “It’s certainly a complaint that we hear at least once a month from somewhere in the country,” he said.
“If I can’t say this particular superintendent isn’t doing their job well, then the public comment period becomes really meaningless,” Lomonte said. The whole purpose of the First Amendment, he argued, is to protect criticism of public officials.
Board Chairwoman Tabares Hantman was quick to distance herself from the names policy, saying that criticism is part of being a public servant. “The attorney brought it in. He’s the one that recommends the policy and the board votes on it,” she said.
Asked why she enforces the rule more against speakers with critical remarks, Tabares Hantman said, “I don’t know how many times that’s happened, but I have talked with the attorney about this many times. I’ve been told you can’t use people’s names in a disparaging way."
There are also rules banning talk of “individual grievances” and “personal attacks.”
“I think it’s fairly consistent,” board attorney Harvey said of Tabares Hantman’s enforcement. Harvey said the rules prevent disruption and “defamation” and that they’ve been vetted by two outside lawyers.
He gave the example of a parent talking about a teacher at a meeting that ends up on TV or on the radio. “And then she has to hear someone defaming her, because she tried to exercise discipline in the classroom, or [tried to] make sure the students are doing whatever, “And the other side of the story isn’t being fully presented,”
“To say the reason why we have this rule is to prevent defamation, that’s a completely inadequate justification,” countered Rick Garnett, a First Amendment scholar at the University of Notre Dame’s law school.
“The way you deal with defamation is you respond to people who engage in defamation. You don’t silence people at the front end in order to make sure they don’t defame”
Freedom of speech is not the same in public meetings as it is on the street, and Garnett says federal courts have sent mixed signals about exactly what that means. But the courts do agree any restrictions on speech have to be “viewpoint-neutral,” that is, enforcement has to be the same whether you’re saying good things or bad things.
Courts in Illinois and Virginia have struck down rules with very similar language to what’s on the books in Miami-Dade. “For every one of these lawsuits that’s been brought and won under the First Amendment,” said Lomonte, with the Student Press Law Center, “undoubtedly there are a dozen other districts who haven’t been sued, enforcing these questionably constitutional policies just because they can get away with it.”
A challenge in federal court can take years and tens of thousands of dollars, Lomonte pointed out—more of than most people could or would sacrifice up for an issue like public comment at school board meetings.
In Miami, though, teachers like Caroline Troche have begun to press the issue at meetings, using Superintendent Alberto Carvalho as an example. “We know who he is…. We know his name,;we can go on the internet and find his name. Why can’t we say his name?”
That may soon change. After inquiries from WLRN, the board voted to review its rules on decorum…If you have something to say about it, you can always sign up to speak at the next public meeting.
The Miami-Dade Couty Public School District is the broadcast license-holder of WLRN, but has no editorial control over the content produced by the station.