Iowa City school board seeks further review of public comment guidelines

Opponents question legality of proposed rules

Gregg Hennigan
Published: March 12 2014 | 7:17 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:29 am in

The Iowa City school board is taking a step back with its controversial guidelines for comments made by the public at meetings.

The board voted 4-2 Tuesday night to send the proposal back to the Policy and Engagement Committee for further review.

The guidelines were drawn up to supplement the school board's  current policy and, supporters said, create a more civil environment at meetings.

Opponents, however, have said board members are trying to shield themselves from criticism and questioned the legality of the guidelines.

Under the proposal, people who address the board would be given three minutes, as they are now, and must conduct themselves with “respect and decorum” and could not be “abusive, harassing, bullying, discriminatory or lewd.” The existing policy says board members and the public will address each other with “civility and respect.”

A meeting on the issue last month generated passionate debate.

Board member Jeff McGinness said he’s concerned about a hostile environment, but he thinks the board’s current policy allows the board president to address that. The proposed guidelines would infringe on free speech, he said.

“I seriously think that as written this is an unconstitutional policy,” said McGinness, an attorney.

That legal question proved key Tuesday night.

Superintendent Stephen Murley said the school board’s attorney, Joe Holland, concluded public comment guidelines are allowed in general. But Holland was not asked to weigh in on the specific proposal before the school board, Murley said.

School board members asked for that to be done.

There also was uncertainty over the origin of the guidelines. Board member Tuyet Dorau’s question of who wrote it was initially met with silence.

Brian Kirschling, who chairs the Policy and Engagement Committee, said a draft was already drawn up in advance of the committee’s first meeting on the topic.

Murley said he did not know who wrote the draft but initial conversations included Holland. Then Chace Ramey, the district’s chief community affairs officer, said he worked on it with Murley.

Dorau and McGinness, who believe the current policy suffices, cast the votes against further review.

Like the board, community members who spoke at the meeting were split on the issue.

Eric Johnson of Iowa City said speakers deserve the chance to address the board without being harassed by the audience.

“In my observation, board meetings have gotten noticeably worse in this regard” recently, he said.

Phil Hemingway of Iowa City said critical debate should not be excluded.

“Board members would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism,” he said.

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