“FAILED:” civil discourse at Sarasota County School Board meetings
Dear Sarasota County School Board Members: Engaged citizens often exercise their right to speak in public about important community issues. The League of Women Voters of Sarasota and Florida believe that participation in community life is essential for a vibrant, sustainable democracy.
But positive results from such engagement can’t occur when public comment consists of individuals personally attacking board members. Recently, local school board meetings have descended into chaos with speakers ignoring the rules of decency and the chair and other board members failing to stop the personal attacks.
The League of Women Voters values American’s First Amendment rights to free speech. We are adamant about defending democracy and believe the public must be free to speak their minds.
Regarding public comment at school board meetings, we believe that comments must be relevant to those matters within the school board’s authority and jurisdiction. Sadly, recent public comments at Sarasota County School Board meetings have failed the basic bars of relevance, civil discourse and truth. Our concern is the public and personal attacks on a sitting school board member.
Recent speakers have used their three minutes of public comment to deliver anti-gay and homophobic tirades against school board member Tom Edwards, making fabricated, vile allegations. The Chair and other members refused to interrupt them. Attacking a school board member, Superintendent or employee for being gay, a person of color, or a certain religion, is not a matter within the school board’s authority or jurisdiction and has no place in a civil society.
It is our position that School Board Chair Bridget Ziegler should no longer allow these personal attacks. Personal assaults demeaning an individual’s humanity is vastly different from forcefully criticizing a board member’s position on masks, social emotional learning, curriculum or any other matter within the board’s authority.
The permitted assault on Mr. Edwards goes beyond First Amendment rights. The ‘Rules for Speakers’ at Sarasota County school board meetings state, “All guest speakers are asked to conduct themselves in a manner in which all our students would be proud.”
Maintaining a healthy and vibrant democracy requires civil discourse. Toward this end, speakers should be required to refrain from personal attacks or vitriol, and focus instead on their ardent opposition or support of actions and decisions the board is making.
The League of Women Voters of Sarasota County is further troubled that these assaults occurred during and following a meeting in which the school board voted to eliminate the district’s “Character Strong” program. This program was developed to instill in students the value of key traits like respect, patience, empathy, humility, honesty, commitment and collaboration. What message does allowing hate speech in a public forum give our children? Clearly civility takes training and patience.
The League of Women Voters of Sarasota County has an Observer Corps that attends public board meetings and workshops. We will be attending meetings of the School Board of Sarasota County and will be writing our observations regarding how well this board’s actions, and other local public boards’ actions, align with the principles of good governance. These observations will be sent to you and shared with the public.
You may contact us if you have questions. We are happy to meet with each of you to discuss our work.
— Linda Thompson, President, League of Women Voters Sarasota County
— Cecile M. Scoon, President, League of Women Voters Florida
— Jill Lewis-Spector, Education Action Chair, League of Women Voters of Florida