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New policy in effect for public comment in Pembroke following ACLU warning

Union Leader Correspondent

October 13. 2016 11:31PM

PEMBROKE — The Pembroke School Board has changed its public comment guidelines as a result of concerns by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, which alleged possible freedom of speech infringements at its meetings.

The ACLU sent the complaint in a letter last June, and School Board Chair Tom Serafin responded on July 21, saying the policy was intended to keep the meetings on topic.

“It is not the intent of the Board to limit the content of (public) comment, but rather ensure that the comments are relevant to business of the Board; which is the purpose of the Board’s meeting,” Serafin wrote.

The complaint was rooted in the board’s handling of the February arrest on school grounds of Rekha Luther, the former dean of students, who faces drug possession charges.

The ACLU pointed to instances on May 10 and 24 when the board did not let the late David Pearl, a Hooksett resident whose daughters have attended Pembroke Academy, read aloud an email chain between himself and SAU 53 Co-Superintendent Patty Sherman. 

The ACLU stated that the board’s action “constitutes unconstitutional viewpoint and content-based discrimination, (that) was applied against the late David Pearl during the public board meetings.”

Pearl, who died of a heart attack on June 4, had cited concerns about how long the board waited to share information about the arrest. He said it was a contradiction that school administrators released a statement about the incident and then said they could not comment on the case.

At those May meetings, Pearl attempted to read the email chain between himself and Sherman during the public comment portion of the meeting, citing it as evidence that school officials mishandled announcing the arrest. 

On May 31, the board adopted a policy saying it had the ability to stop any public comments deemed “defamatory.”

The board set a policy in June — before receipt of the ACLU letter — that governs public participation and citizens’ comments at board meetings. The policy also addresses how complaints about school district personnel are to be handled.

Under the policy, public discussion of items not on a meeting agenda will be allowed at the board’s discretion, and one 15-minute period for public comment will be set aside at the beginning of every meeting.

Nonresidents will be allowed to address the board too, but only at the board’s discretion.

The ACLU said the board’s response and policy updates are acceptable, as long as they execute the policy properly.

“We are pleased that the Pembroke School Board agreed not to enforce its policies in a viewpoint-discriminatory way,” said Gilles Bissonnette, the ACLU’s legal director, on Thursday. “That said, we will be monitoring how the Board implements this policy to ensure that people do not have their free speech rights violated in the future.”

The board had also considered a policy that would alert parents of any emergency responses at the school. The policy was presented by Chris Decker, an Epsom resident and parent of a Pembroke Academy student, as a way to prevent similar situations from happening in the future.

But on Sept. 13, the proposed policy failed to pass after a split vote and some discussion about whether or not it would meet the needs of the district.

“Sometimes the best action you can take formally is no action at all,” said School Board member Patricia Nardone-Boucher, who voted against the proposed policy at that meeting.

Pearl is one of two recipients of the 2016 Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment Award. He was applauded both for advocating openness and transparency in his hometown and with the Pembroke School Board. He will be honored posthumously at the school event at the Palace Theatre in Manchester on Thursday, Nov.  17.


Education Local and County Government Pembroke

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