Under the shadow of a recent lawsuit, the Madison school board heard some residents complain Tuesday about the district’s alleged speech restrictions at board meetings.
The Madison Board of Education heard from a family who had recently sued the board regarding its procedures and conduct during the public comment portions of its meetings.
The February lawsuit claims board members limited public comment in the last year regarding the district’s policy to allow some staffers access to firearms.
Madison Schools has a relatively extensive procedure for members of the public wanting to speak to the board that is rare among the publicly elected boards in other area school systems.
“I’ve been led out of school meetings simply because I used words and statements you guys didn’t approve of,” said Bill Ison, who is a member of the family that filed the lawsuit.
“I have every right to stand up here and address grievances,” said Ison, who last year was escorted from a meeting by a Butler County Sheriff deputy after being ordered to leave by the board.
The free speech lawsuit followed a group of parents suing the district to stop its arming program of some trained staffers to carry or have access to handguns.
Last month a judge ruled against the group’s contention that Madison schools had not met some of the legal requirements regarding training of armed school staffers.
The weapons policy has elicited much community discussion and brought speakers to Madison school board meetings.
“The school board has engaged in a concerted campaign designed to chill and silence plaintiffs from further public criticism of its actions by imposing prior restraints on plaintiffs ability to participate in public meetings and by fabricating requirements as barriers to public participation that do not appear in the school board’s written rules,” the lawsuit reads.
The traditional and commonplace procedure for area school boards is to ask those attending a public meeting to sign a sheet shortly before or during the first part of a meeting. Speakers are often limited to those residing within the school district.
Speakers are asked to note their address and topic on which they’d like to speak. Some districts also require speakers to state their full names and home addresses before addressing board members.
But Madison officials require a speaker to fill out a form and submit it to district officials two business days prior to the board meeting date. The speaker must also make note of any group affiliation.
Moreover, the district’s policy stipulates the board’s president “may interrupt, warn or terminate a participant’s statement when the statement is too lengthy, personally directed, abusive, obscene or irrelevant.”
And “request any individual to leave the meeting when that person does not observe reasonable decorum.”
And can “request the assistance of law enforcement officers in the removal of a disorderly person when that person’s conduct interferes with the orderly progress of the meeting.”
Like all other area school boards, Madison’s governing board has a time limit on speakers – three minutes – which is a practice adopted by many boards. Board presidents have the discretion to extend a speaker’s time.
Tuesday’s board meeting saw board president David French place no new restrictions on any of the public speakers beyond the usual three-minute time limit for commenting.
Neither French nor other board members would comment about the pending lawsuit.