Lawsuit reminds us all speech must be protected

We’ve heard residents say all manner of things at board meetings.

So when a district resident was precluded from making public comment at a Dec. 12 meeting in Hinsdale High School District 86, we were surprised.

When two more residents were prevented from speaking as well, we stopped being surprised and started getting angry.

It’s true that the letter the three wanted to read (written by another district resident) was quite critical toward Carol Baker, assistant superintendent for academics. She and the board had been under fire for the district’s new science sequence plan. But the letter — which had been posted on Facebook and sent to board members before the meeting — did not contain remarks that justified suppression.

District officials thought differently, however, claiming comments in the letter were too personal and cited social media posts that had launched attacks against Baker.

That response didn’t satisfy us, and it didn’t satisfy Meeta Patel, Kara Kuo and Kim Notaro, the three residents who attempted to read the letter. They filed a lawsuit in February with the U.S. District Court Northern District of Illinois claiming the board violated their First Amendment rights and the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

That lawsuit was settled late last month. The board acknowledged the residents should have been allowed to read the letter and agreed to listen to a presentation on the First Amendment and Open Meetings Act at a future board meeting. The district also will pay the plaintiffs’ legal costs of $21,000.

We’re disappointed board President Kevin Camden voted no on the settlement agreement. We disagree that the letter’s contents were bullying or harassing in nature.

They certainly weren’t flattering, but as the plaintiffs’ attorney pointed out in a February article, a policy promoting “civility” should not trump free speech.

And that’s the real danger in a subjective approach to First Amendment rights. If someone in a position of authority — at the local, state or federal level — believes they have the right to vet public comments and prevent those deemed distasteful from being uttered, we are all in real trouble.

We would hope that those who lead a school district also would think about the lessons they are teaching students. It would be a shame for teens to extrapolate that if elected officials regard a citizen’s statement as mean, they can simply stop him or her from speaking.

Especially at this time, we need to set an example for young people of listening to one another. Even if we find the message upsetting. Even if we wish it had been worded more kindly. Even if we disagree. Especially if we disagree.

This world has much bigger problems to solve than whether biology or physics should be taught first in high school. If adults can’t model a difficult discussion about that subject, how can we expect teens and young adults to tackle conversations about race? Or gender? Or class?

District 86 board members passed up a real teaching moment on Dec. 12. We hope they’ve learned their lesson.