The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union is considering possible legal action against the Timberlane Regional School Board if it does not repeal "unconstitutional" new restrictions on how board members can speak and act.
By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM
New Hampshire Sunday News
And that, according to Bissonnette, is a violation of members' constitutional right to engage in political speech to the press. "It is the equivalent of a gag order with respect to the eight members of the board who are not the chair," he told the New Hampshire Sunday News.
The NHCLU attorney sent a letter on Friday to Timberlane board Chairman Nancy Steenson, school Superintendent Earl Metzler and the school district's attorney about the new rules. "There is no compelling governmental interest that could possibly justify such a substantial intrusion on First Amendment rights," Bissonnette wrote.
"We do not believe it is a productive use of anyone's time or of taxpayers' money for the district to defend such patently unconstitutional rules," he wrote.
In an interview on Saturday, Bissonnette noted school board members are elected representatives. "They're tasked to exercise independent judgment," he said. "They, in the exercise of their independent judgment, are perfectly entitled to decide when and how to engage their constituents."
The basic problem with both rules, Bissonnette wrote in his letter, "is that they ignore the bedrock principle that an elected official enjoys the same free speech rights as any other citizen."
"I understand the ... desire for solidarity and a single voice, but when we became elected, we didn't give up our right to free speech," Green said at the March 20 meeting. "We all have equal authority, and I think we should all be free to express our feelings on certain topics."
Steenson responded that "there is always room for dissent in this room" and noted that board meetings are televised, so the public can see where members stand on any given issue.
In fact, he said, "the best way to deal with a situation like this is not to restrict speech but to ... engage in further speech, so the public can evaluate the full universe of ideas that are being presented by the various board members."
A former member of the ConVal School Board who was censured four years ago for speaking out against a proposed school bond that her board had endorsed was shocked yesterday to hear about the Timberlane rules.
Cromwell won the Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment Award in 2010 because of her fierce defense of her free speech rights while serving on the ConVal board.
"These are not American rules," she said. "These are some communist country or some country where they're trying to control everything.
Sunday News correspondent Adam Swift contributed to this report.