Students and parents surprised by prohibition against mentioning individuals during public comment

The Woodburn School Board meeting April 5 was packed with students and parents, many of whom were there to speak in support of Wellness, Business and Sports School teacher Ryan Slider, who resigned in March but who they allege was forced out.

When it came time to show support for the teacher in the public forum portion of the evening, the students had an unpleasant surprise, as one by one, they were prevented by the board from speaking specifically about Slider.

This was due to a board policy that had been changed in January to prohibit any mention of individual staff members during public comment. The public, however, was unaware of the change, as the policy had not been updated on the Woodburn School District website, so several students voiced frustration to the Woodburn Independent through letters to the editor saying they felt like they had been shut down unfairly by the board.

"Many times throughout the meeting, we were silenced and told we were not to speak of a particular staff member," Woodburn junior Gabi Prescott wrote. "Even when no names were mentioned, they stopped whoever was talking and no longer wanted to listen."

The prohibition on mentioning individual staff members was a recommendation by the Oregon School Boards Association, according to Alex Pulaski, OSBA communications director.

OSBA's legal staff recommends that school boards no longer allow any public comment, not just complaints, concerning staff. Several school boards have chosen not to change the policy, according to Pulaski.

The OSBA made the recommendation in a policy update from September 2017. The change in language was intended to correct previous policy which prohibited only criticism, a limit on free speech that can be seen as a violation of the First Amendment known as viewpoint discrimination.

Viewpoint discrimination is discrimination by the government against the specific content of speech, for example, if a city prohibited members of a religious organization from handing out fliers or a political group from obtaining a permit for a march. Limits on speech in such cases have only been allowed when they are content neutral, such as if all handing out of fliers or all marching was prohibited.

OSBA legal staff wished to avoid confrontation with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has challenged similar limits on criticism in other states, Pulaski said. School districts could choose to not update the policy and still allow criticism of staff, but according to Pulaski, OSBA legal staff concluded that the risk of allowing criticism outweighed the risk of prohibiting all speech about individual staff.

Woodburn School Board voted to change its policy Jan. 18 in a public meeting, and while it made for an unpleasant surprise to students, the board was not required to update its policy online or otherwise post notifications of policy changes.

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