Free Speech Trumps Secrecy

Whenever we hear that people are ordered not to talk to the press, we wonder what they wish to hide. And whenever we hear the press blamed for “bad publicity,” we’re pretty sure public information has been reported that some official wishes had been kept private.

The Timberlane School Board has just required its members to sign an eight-point statement that focuses on making sure only the chair speaks to the press. This is the first year it’s in writing, and coincidentally, it’s the first year Donna Green of Sandown is an elected board member. She spent much of budget season, as a member of the Timberlane budget committee, publicly seeking documentation, debating figures, and most recently, questioning the implementation of a kindergarten Spanish program that included hiring the superintendent’s wife.

Maybe that’s a coincidence, but that’s the least of the issue.

The board action is so broad that it impinges on the free speech rights of its members. As Green noted, getting elected to the board does not equal giving up the right to free speech.

Hopefully the school board supports the teaching of history, including the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That means all those pesky things like free speech.

Most newspapers contact the superintendent and/or school board chair when there’s a question. In town government, the same applies – town manager and council or selectman chair. But we often contact all or as many of the board members as possible as well.

Not, as Atkinson  board member Michael Mascola said, because we’re in search of “dirt” and “headlines,” but because an issue has surfaced that residents and taxpayers deserve to know about in order to make informed decisions.

We wonder about the board’s definition of dirt and headlines – hiring decisions? Budget changes? Sorry, folks, we call that news.

While the board may have a particular newspaper in mind – no complaints have come to this one – we stand by every newspaper’s right to report on public meetings and the actions of elected officials, not just issues self-selected by the chair. You find opinions on the editorial page. News articles are reports of news.

Board member Rob Collins of Danville said the chair and superintendent speak constantly, and that things can change so quickly that no one would know but the two of them. If we sat on that board, we’d question why we were being kept in the dark.

More to the point: what information is the board afraid of letting the taxpayers know? So much for transparency. But if the board is prevented from asking questions, be grateful that in this country, newspapers are still free to seek the answers.

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