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Shawnee Mission School District board drafts new public comment rules after ACLU voices concerns

SHAWNEE, Kan. — A Johnson County school district has come under fire regarding a concern about free speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union called out the Shawnee Mission School District, citing “grave constitutional concerns.”

The district's board of education had its monthly meeting Monday. One of the agenda items addressed the issue, which surrounds open forum policy -- or the public comment time during monthly board meetings.

No decisions were made Monday, but board members received the first draft of a potential new policy.

Here is the current policy listed on the SMSD website:

smsd policy new

The only thing off limits now regarding open forum is “personal attacks” or naming specific students and teachers.

At the meeting, board member Deb Zila pointed out if there are complaints, there are available avenues to express them.

“Certainly there are always things that come up that you may have issue with, but there is a chain of communication to go through, and that will walk you right through it," Zila said.

The ACLU's letter stems from a meeting last year. The Shawnee Mission Post reports, at a meeting last year, a board member told a parent he couldn’t pose questions in open forum about a specific board member.

Since then, the ACLU has come out against the district, claiming the rules limit First Amendment rights.

The ACLU was not at Monday’s meeting and said it was short-staffed that day, but a communications person sent an emailed statement:

"The Shawnee Mission School Board's current policy limiting public comments during open forum portions of school board meetings presents grave constitutional concerns. The public has a well-established First Amendment Right to criticize -- or praise -- both elected officials, including school board members, and public servants, such as teachers and other district officials. The ACLU of Kansas is disappointed that the board chose to adopt such a policy in the first place, but we are hopeful that it will be revised or rescinded in light of these concerns."

Monday night, the board didn’t go into the specifics of the new draft but said they’re reviewing current policy. Zila did address one topic from the existing rules.

“One of the things that’s in there is about criticizing board members, and I will tell you right now, that’s something I think we’d all recommend (at least on the task force and I think the board) to strike from that documents," Zila said.

The other part of the draft mentioned was changing the name from “open forum” to “public comment.”

Find photos of the draft that was given to the board below:

SMSD draft 1SMSD draft 2SMSD draft 3

The board says it plans to publicly discuss its work on this matter at the next board workshop.