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School districts muzzling of speaker may cross free speech line

North Clackamas board cuts parent off when he spoke out at meeting

When Rick Frank showed up at the North Clackamas School District's board of directors meeting March 20, he wanted answers on controversial statements made by the superintendent at the previous meeting.

He also wanted it known that he didn't approve of what he saw as disrespectful and condescending remarks against Milwaukie High School's teaching staff.

Frank, the parent of a Milwaukie High student, was not given that chance. The board silenced his criticism in what members say was a necessary move, but which one attorney said violated Frank's right to free speech.

At the district's March 6 meeting, many teachers, parents and students questioned the board over its near firing of teacher and coach Brian Duhrkoop. The comments quickly veered, revealing deeper issues at the school. Parents and teachers spoke of a lack of leadership and a stifling atmosphere.

'I really think there's a problem,' parent Bob Calloway said at the March 6 meeting. 'Right now that school, in my mind, is in turmoil. There's a lack of leadership.'

Frank, at that earlier meeting, echoed that sentiment.

'In organizing this it was not hard,' he said, referring to the 'Keep the Koop' campaign. 'People came out of the woodwork … It wasn't just Duhrkoop, there is some real discomfort at Milwaukie. [Other teachers] are saying they feel really stifled there.'

Slamming the gavel

After the public comment session, Superintendent Ron Naso responded, challenging those parents and teachers to take responsibility and improve the school. He said he wasn't sure students at Milwaukie were getting the education they deserve, a comment that many teachers say they took as a personal affront.

So when Frank came back to the board's next meeting on March 20, he was still upset and wanted to share that frustration with the board and to get an apology or an explanation.

Before he even began to speak, though, Board chair Lee Merrick tried to rein him in.

'Do not criticize members of the staff or actions they have taken,' Merrick said in opening the public comment session.

Frank began reading from a prepared statement.

'The administration unfairly put this young teacher through agony for two weeks,' Frank said. 'Then just when he was regaining his self-respect, picking himself up and dusting himself off, Mr. Naso felt the need to kick him one more time … Mr. Naso's comments were not the actions of a compassionate and respected leader.'

But Frank was cut off as board members protested and Merrick slammed the gavel repeatedly.

'The board will not hear personal complaints,' said Director Rein Vaga, referencing a school board policy that says speakers can offer objective criticism but may not air 'personal complaints of school personnel nor against any person connected with the school system.'

Frank tried to continue, but was repeatedly interrupted until his point was lost. In frustration, he sat down.

In an interview later, Vaga said that the rule is important, and that there were more appropriate avenues for addressing those grievances.

'I think it's perfectly necessary and appropriate for people to address the board on specific issues, not to malign a member of the district,' he said. 'It's inappropriate and won't be accepted, or at least I won't listen to it.'

He said the board welcomes comment, but has boundaries.

'We very much appreciate the input from the public, it's necessary,' he said. 'It's unfair to allow someone to come up and point the finger and start blasting away, no that's not right.'

Possible free speech violation

But the school board may have infringed upon Frank's First Amendment rights, according to Portland attorney Jack Orchard, who specializes in free speech issues. He said the board can set operational restraints, such as how long each person is permitted to talk, but in a public comment session it generally can't limit what is said.

'It may be painful, it may be unwarranted, but the reality is the public can't be shackled,' Orchard said. 'I think they can impose reasonable limits in terms of profanity' or if someone's 'jumping up and down and yelling,' but the board can't outright silence criticism, he said.

He also said criticism ought to be tied back to a point.

'If a speaker says the superintendent is a no-good so-and-so and it doesn't come back to what's the point, then I think it can be' silenced, he said. 'I think it's got to be tied back to something that relates to the performance of the district.'

But in general, he said critiques of the superintendent or the school board are fair game.

'The superintendent is in what I call the attackable class,' Orchard said. 'That comes with the territory … If you have an issue with an action that the superintendent has taken, OK, we have to hear you out. That's what I think the public comment was designed for. The tolerance for criticism is greater given the greater responsibility of the topic. If you're down at the level of a kindergarten teacher, I think there's less tolerance … But the superintendent's fair game, because that is the administrative manifestation of how the district operates and spends funds.'

North Clackamas School District Board Chair Lee Merrick did not return a call seeking comment.