Sunday, July 14, 2024

“The School Committee rules state that when there’s more than 20 people that want to speak, the time can be reduced to two minutes per person,” Mayor E. Denise Simmons asserted from the chair at the Tuesday meeting of the Cambridge School Committee. Throughout the truncated public comments, moreover, Simmons repeatedly interrupted and admonished the public by ordering us to refrain from mentioning individuals by name. Many of the emails received by the committee in advance of the meeting, she complained, had named “an individual school and an individual employee.”

The large number of parents and teachers who signed up to give public comment made the committee nervous. Maybe that’s why no member of the committee pointed out that Simmons’ assertion of the rule of 20 commentators rang false, or that the prohibition against naming individuals is unconstitutional. The committee’s rules, which do not require the chair to limit public expression in this manner, state no numerical threshold. Nor do the committee’s rules prohibit the naming of individuals.

One is liable to draw the conclusion that the committee regards public comment as burdensome. It is well and good that members should receive written communications from the public. But encouraging private communications in lieu of robust comment at open meetings deprives us of the opportunity to hear and learn from one other.

The new members or one of their subcommittees have convened 13 times so far this year. Public comment has been permitted on five of those occasions. On Jan. 16, just two people signed up. The teachers’ union president spoke, and then a parent stepped up to the podium and attempted to discuss the ways that, in her opinion, the superintendent’s office ignores or belittles the voices of parents, teachers and students. Simmons cut in. Discussing individuals by name, she asserted, was “not appropriate”; she ordered the parent “not to use names.” Member Richard Harding chimed in that public comment may take place only “without naming names as a matter of practice.”

At the Tuesday meeting, Simmons set forth an unlawful standard of her responsibilities: “The job of the chair is to maintain decorum.” Actually, any attempt to enforce civility in an open meeting violates members’ oath to the Massachusetts Constitution, according to the Supreme Judicial Court.

A major SJC ruling in March 2023 in Barron v. Kolenda held that “civility restraints on the content of speech at a public comment session in a public meeting are forbidden” by the assembly provision of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. “The provision,” the SJC ruled, “reflects the lessons and the spirit of the American Revolution. The assembly provision arose out of fierce opposition to governmental authority, and it was designed to protect such opposition, even if it was rude, personal and disrespectful.”

We may comment on individuals employed by the Cambridge School District, so long as we do so in connection with their official duties.

The Rules of the City Council, barring “slander, unreasonably loud or repetitive speech,” remain unconstitutional. But in April, just a month after the SJC ruling, the School Committee revised the public comment section of its rules to conform to the court’s ruling and removed the prohibition against rude speech directed at individuals. The current rules of the committee, adopted unanimously at a meeting Jan. 9, reflect those changes. Continuing to assert the inevitably arbitrary standard of “decorum” while prohibiting the naming of names not only intimidates the public. These dictates violate the committee’s own rules.

It is not a good idea to call anyone Hitler, as the victor in Barron v. Kolenda did. But rudeness is constitutionally protected speech. In the future, the School Committee stops us at its peril. The SJC denied the presumption of “qualified immunity” to members in lawsuits that may seek remedies.

At the next meeting, Simmons should apologize for misleading us and properly inform public commentators of the full breadth of our right to speak.

John Summers, Fairmont Street, Cambridge