The title of this article paraphrases a quote from the 18th century statesman, Edmund Burke, whose admonition cautious that: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This sounds like a lofty observation, yet three hundred years later this statement still resonates with our daily reality. This country was built on the First Amendment doctrine of Free Speech, the constitutional right to voice one’s opinion. However today, we live in the era of “free speech” as exemplified by Donald Trump and other privileged males. Their “free speech” is perverted to couch sentiments laced with hate speech, fear mongering, bigotry and racism. They dismiss their incendiary rhetoric with claims of refusing to be “politically correct”. They believe that their freedom of speech gives them the right to malign, degrade and/or threaten individuals, who do not, conversely, have the right to respond in kind. And they use their status and power to silence those who even dare to express a semblance of “talking back”. Their behavior reminds me of an old saying: “you can dish it out, but you can’t take it!”
The subject of free speech and the right of parents, whether they’re teachers or not and community members, to address the Board of Education during Board meetings has been an ongoing issue contributing to increasing tensions and frustration for stakeholders. The Board majority’s obvious disdain for the Public Comment segment has been an open secret for months. However, recently their opposition culminated in a Resolution proposing to limit and/or restructure this opportunity for public input. The Resolution cited regular appearances by some speakers, as well as the repetition of subject matter, as a central rationale for the policy change along with an intent to have more efficient meetings. On a more hopeful note, the Board recently initiated a discussion; open to the public, which appeared to suggest that an honest dialogue would ensue about how to resolve this issue.
And then the September 23rd Board meeting took place. Keith Jones came to speak to the Board. Mr. Jones, a custodial grandfather and community activist, is a frequent speaker and often criticizes board members, particularly the majority members. Yes, Mr. Jones has had some harsh words for the Board and certain members specifically. Last week, however, before Mr. Jones opened his mouth, he was accused of threatening Mr. Paladino during a previous meeting. Mr. Paladino and Mr. Quinn both demanded that Mr. Jones not be allowed to speak, setting the stage for his removal. Initially, Board President Sampson objected to Mr. Paladino’s demand but proceeded to instruct Mr. Jones on how he should address the Board. As Mr. Jones attempted to explain his previous remarks, he was repeatedly told to be quiet by the Board President.
In an appalling display of the misuse of authority, the Board President gaveled Mr. Jones into silence threatening him and ultimately having him escorted from the board meeting by security. Many in the audience were appalled and expressed their belief that Mr. Jones was treated unfairly. Remember that he was accused of threatening the man, who wrote to a distinguished scholar and consultant for the District on the OCR matter warning him to “stay out of our way, Dr.” And just a few weeks ago Mr. Paladino sent a message to the incoming Superintendent telling him that he would fashion “a career ending casket” for him, if “he messes with me”. Mr. Paladino attributes his comments to his right to free speech. Members of the minority bloc have repeatedly asked the Board to address Mr. Paladino’s unprofessional and unacceptable behavior. They have refused. The message of this refusal: We tell our students that bullying is wrong, but we fail to be role models for them. Further, that discrimination is sanctioned by the Board majority when it comes to one of their own.
The Board Policy 1513 on “Public Participation at Board Meetings” provides no process for the ejection of a speaker or the restriction of a speaker. These actions are being devised as “needed” and are capricious. Members of the Buffalo Parent Teachers Organization have voiced their concerns and demanded a review of this shameful event. Board member Sharon Belton-Cottman has also voiced her objections as to how this matter was handled. We support the call for a review of how this situation with Mr. Jones was handled.
Mr. Jones’ removal, not only from the podium but from the Board room, was not coincidental to the majority’s plans to restrict, reconfigure or even eliminate the speakers’ segment of the board meetings. This incident involves the right of the constituents of this District to express their concerns, grievances, and preferences to the Board. And it is a question of freedom of speech. Yes, Board members may not like to hear what the public has to say. We may have to hear the same people week after week and they may bring the same complaints week after week, but that is part of the job that we took an oath to fulfill. The Board Policy states that the Board: “….encourages public participation…..The public’s opinion is of great value and the Board welcomes the public’s input.” Behavior from public officials that is inconsistent and contrary to its own policy should be questioned. The Board should be required to support its own policy and be responsive to its constituents. Silence is complicity with bad doers. If anything is going to change, we need the public to speak up and demand change.