Board undecided on signs at meetings

BY LUKE VOELZ | MARCH 23, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Iowa City School Board was unable to come to a conclusion at Tuesday's meeting regarding a policy change that would prohibit public signs and mutlimedia presentations at board meetings.

Board members discussed the potential change as part of the proposal's third reading in the face of three signs carried by members of the public against theprohibition.

"WHY NOT FREE SPEECH?" one sign read.

Votes for the tabling motion deadlocked at 3-3 because of board member Mike Cooper's absence. Because members did not reach a decision, the board must have an additional reading at its next meeting.

Board member Tuyet Dorau then moved to turn the policy change down, saying she did not find past instances of public signs at board meetings inhibited the meetings' efficiency.

The vote on that motion also tied at 3, and the policy change will be read again the meeting on April 5.

Pat Hemingway, a City High parent who spoke at the policy's second reading on March 8, displayed a red-and-white saying "Support City High" during his comments to the Board.

"Limiting opportunities of speech cannot be viewed by the community as wanting to encourage participation," he said. "Your actions don't set good examples for the kids."

Hemingway provided the example of the Supreme Court's support of free speech in the recent 8-1 ruling of Snyder v. Phelps, a case involving Westboro Baptist Church, a group what has protested at some military funerals. He said the case dealt with issues of public signs in response to public issues.

He concluded by suggesting signs offered certain members of the public an alternative way of addressing the board.

"Some people feel more comfortable holding a sign. That's their way of speaking in public," he said. "No provisions are made for that. Someone who has a speech impediment — what are his alternatives?"

The board's discussion of the reading returned to whether meetings were an appropriate venue for public presentations. President Patti Fields said the board should focus on limiting meetings to board discussion and offer separate opportunities for public input.

"I don't think [the reading] was limiting public interaction with board," she said. "We do hold many forums to gather public input. At board meetings, we have certain things to complete and work on, and we should focus on running meetings to improve our efficiency."

Board member Sarah Swisher suggested tabling the policy for future discussion, possibly within the next month. She said she does not disagree with the policy, but she believes the School District needs to take more time gathering community input.

"I thought the timing [of the reading] was bad," she said. "It felt like we were trying to be controlling of the community rather than open to the community."

Swisher said while she would like to prohibit public multimedia presentations because of their time-consuming nature, she supports most signs.

"I like signs," she said. "Picket signs are an old, old method of public comment to officials and often result in positive change."

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