SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 1, 2014

NHACLU challenges Timberlane gag order

By Doug Ireland
Staff writer

---- — PLAISTOW, N.H. — The Timberlane School Board has been asked to repeal two of its recently adopted rules — or face a potential legal battle.

Two of the eight rules violate free speech rights, according to the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union.

One, Rule 8, prohibits anyone but School Board Chairman Nancy Steenson from speaking to members of the press. The other, Rule 7, declares all board members will support all board decisions, regardless of how they voted.

Both are violations of the First Amendment, according to NHCLU attorney Gilles Bissonnette.

In a three-page letter Friday to the School Board’s attorney, Steenson and Superintendent Earl Metzler, Gilles gave the board until Thursday to repeal the rules or face the consequences.

“We do not believe it is a productive use of anyone’s time or taxpayers’ money for the District to defend such patently unconstitutional rules,” Gilles wrote. “There is no compelling governmental interest that could possibly justify such a substantial intrusion on First Amendment rights.”

Gilles said yesterday he had been contacted by Diane Gorrow, the school district’s attorney, but had not yet discussed the matter with her.

Gorrow did not return a phone message yesterday.

Steenson did not return three phone message requesting comment yesterday. Metzler also did not return three calls. When finally contacted, Metzler said he was too busy to speak.

The board voted March 20 to adopt the rules, by a 7-2 vote. Donna Green of Sandown and Peter Bealo of Plaistow were the only board members to vote in opposition. Both spoke at the meeting about their right to free speech.

Last week, Steenson said the board has always operated under the understanding that only the chairman is allowed to speak to reporters.

The vote two weeks ago just formalized that decision, she said, providing “a unified voice as a board.”

But Bissonnette said the effort appears to be one to “suppress the public speech of board members who disagree with board decisions.”

The First Amendment guarantees that government cannot restrict expression of speech that doesn’t sit well, he pointed out.

School Board members are elected, not hired public employees, Bissonnette said in his letter.

“They should be (and are) able to speak their mind, especially through the media which enables political ideas to reach the largest number of constituents,” he wrote.

Bissonnette said yesterday the NHCLU has not decided if it would definitely take legal action against the School Board if the rules aren’t repealed. If they do go ahead, a lawsuit would be filed in either U.S. District Court or Rockingham Superior Court in Brentwood, he said.

“We’ll have to wait and see what happens,” he said.

Another option would be to meet with the School Board to try to resolve the issue, he said.

Bissonnette said his organization occasionally challenges town board decisions, but the issues are often resolved before they go to court.

As an example, he cited a decision by the Rochester City Council last month to repeal a panhandling ordinance that the NHCLU contended violated the free speech rights of the poor.

As for Rule 7, requiring individual board members to support all decisions, even those they disagree with, Bissonnette said it, too, violates free speech rights.

“Again, dissent and critique are essential components of democratic government,” he wrote. “ ... Such free speech is essential to a free society.”

The rules were drafted by School Board member Rob Collins of Danville, the former chairman.

The School Board’s meeting Thursday begins at 7:30 p.m. in the superintendent’s office at 30 Greenough Road.