EDITORIAL: Muzzled

Controlling board members shouldn’t defy laws, fairness

It’s not unusual for an elected board in the Rio Grande Valley to contain members of opposing factions. We’ve seen conflicts in city commissions, school boards and other bodies in Rio Grande City, Donna, Mercedes, San Benito and other Valley communities.

Our country’s founding fathers saw dissent as a good thing, insisting that the candid discussion of divergent viewpoints will help groups reconcile them into policies that are best for the majority.

In reality, those differences can break down into petty bickering and unwarranted sanctions.

Dedicated public officials should do their best to keep their duties at the forefront, and not allow personal differences to interfere with the fair execution of their duties of office. Most importantly, majorities on the boards should not abuse their authority to enact sanctions that are intended to affect individual members.

Members of the Brownsville Independent School District Board of Trustees recently enacted policy changes, at least in part to address the behavior of one of their newest members. Some of the changes are warranted, but one in particular imposes restrictions that challenge its constitutionality, and could affect the district’s goal of providing the best and safest educational environment for its students.

Erasmo Castro spends much of his day going around town taking selfies and then posting them to his social media pages. After his election to the school board he began visiting campuses and taking his photos there. The board issued a reminder that its own members are bound by the same rules that govern unauthorized visits to campuses and the photography of children without permission. That is a valid reminder that the rules exist for a reason, and a seat on the school board is not sanction to disregard any regulation.

The board also added the following statement to its operating procedures manual: “An individual board member shall not, in public or in private, nor on social media, demean, attack, disparage or speak ill of the district or another board member or members.”

The intent is understandable; public bickering invites members of the public, and even district employees, to break into factions that could affect the administration of district duties. And a simple request that board members, and anyone else associated with the district, behave themselves isn’t a problem.

Imposing an outright ban on criticism, however, is a problem.

Election to a political board does not remove a person’s constitutional right to speak freely. Moreover, there is no hard and fast definition of demeaning or disparaging speech. When is a candid statement regarding campus security or the application of district funds a valid expression of concerns, and when does it cross the line to become speaking ill of members who favor the proposal or situation that raised the speaker’s concerns? Who gets to make that decision?

Will the rule, however benign its intent might be, serve to muzzle board members who find fault with a policy or proposal, or prevent them from offering ideas that might be better than those one the table or that could improve the district?

It should be enough to offer simple reminders that district policies apply to everyone, including board members, and that as public representatives of the district they should be judicious and respectful in their actions and public statements. Imposing limits on free speech only opens a new can of worms while trying to seal another.