RALEIGH — Wake County school board members say they want to bring decorum back to meetings where the fight about diversity has resulted in jeering crowds, board members being called racists and the audience being called animals by the board chairman.
But the proposal being discussed today to formally bar speakers from making personal attacks is drawing complaints from civil rights groups and opponents of the board majority's policies. The fight over limiting public comment is exacerbating a situation that has already gotten very heated.
"People have their two minutes to speak," said Yevonnne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a group critical of the new board. "Let them get up and speak. Why get into determining whether they've crossed the line?"
But school board Vice Chairwoman Debra Goldman said board members have the right to expect proper behavior from the public. She said people can criticize board members without insulting them.
"It's a meeting to address issues. But it's not a place to personally attack people," said Goldman, who heads the committee that drafted the policy.
Another vote expected at the meeting today is on revising the student assignment policy to make proximity to school a priority rather than socioeconomic diversity.
Votes on both policies could be only initial approval. A second vote would likely be needed May 18.
No 'personal attacks'
Goldman said public's conduct at meetings since the new majority took office Dec. 1 has created the need for a written policy that "speakers are required to refrain from personal attacks and insults directed at the board, staff, or other members of the public."
On March 2, for example, the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, second vice president of the state NAACP, called school board Chairman Ron Margiotta a "white racist" and said he was going to hell. During the same meeting, Margiotta called audience members "animals" after they jeered a black speaker who opposed the diversity policy.
"Some of the same people who are criticizing the board should look at the way they're acting at board meetings," Goldman said.
The wrong message?
But Brannon said Goldman is focusing on the actions of a few people in the crowd. She said the public speaking policy - along with prior board decisions such as requiring tickets for seats, not moving the meetings to a hall with more seats and limiting speakers to two minutes instead of the traditional three - is angering the public.
"The message they're sending is the public is being restricted," Brannon said.
Durham, which has seen heated meetings in the past, limits vocal attacks on school employees, but not the superintendent or school board members.
Margiotta said Monday that school staff is reviewing the possibility of moving the meeting May 18 to a larger auditorium, but there are no plans to move today's meeting.
In a letter sent Friday several civil rights groups raised concern that the proposed Wake policy violated First Amendment free-speech rights. Katy Parker, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said the policy fails to spell out what constitutes a personal attack.
"Any time you have a policy that's vague and chills free speech, that's a concern to us," Parker said.
Margiotta and Goldman defended the policy, saying it was crafted by board attorney Ann Majestic. But they've asked her to review the policy after the civil rights groups raised questions.
"The only reason that someone would be upset is if they're planning to make a personal attack," Goldman said.
Staff writer Thomas Goldsmith contributed to this report.
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