Katy ISD Board of Trustees is facing harsh criticism regarding a policy forbidding individual trustees from speaking to the media. Two board members feel that the procedure, which has been in place for over a decade, violates their First Amendment right to free speech.
While most school districts recognize the board president as the spokesperson for the board as a whole, free speech advocates believe that individual board members should have a right to make their personal opinions heard through the media, especially when their views might be different than the board majority or president. Many elected officials use the press as a way to make their positions known to constituents who are not able to attend every board meeting.
Although the policy has had detractors in the past, the issue was brought to the forefront in a recent board meeting when board member and former board president Charles Griffin asked that the procedure be re-visited.
“Our current interpretation of our board policy has put a focus on our board members not talking to the media.” Griffin stated, “As a veteran, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, but I never took one to not. So I find it rather difficult as an individual not to be able to talk to the media.” Griffin went on to suggest the board adopt Spring Branch ISD’s media policy which he believes is more transparent.
Under KISD’s policy, individual board members are not allowed to talk to the media, and must forward calls to the board president. The president is the only member permitted to speak to the media, according to the district’s interpretation of a section in the KISD Board Operating Procedures:
“The district and board work with local news media to provide information to the community regarding the goals, achievements, needs, and conditions of schools and educational programs. All written requests should be forwarded to the director of communications. If a board member receives a call from the media, the call should be directed to the board president.”
However, newly elected board member George Scott questions the legitimacy of the board’s stifling of free speech:
“It is the burden of the school board leadership to give a statutory or regulatory citation that says the school board can impose a muzzle on an individual board member who is not speaking on behalf of the board.”
Some of the board members seemed more concerned with throwing around accusations than addressing the policy and the issue of free speech. Members Courtney Doyle and Ashley Vann accused Griffin of “hypocrisy,” arguing that if he had an issue with the policy he should have changed it in the past when he was president.
Vann stated that the board policy was a matter of respect, “The word muzzle is a little extreme, but there is a little bit of respect for leadership in the past that has been put in place, and I would just like to go on record identifying that.”
Vann also believes that a board member wanting to exercise free speech through the media is selfish, stating that, “I think that demanding the right to speak to the press whenever is a little bit self-serving.”
Scott maintains that he will continue to speak to the media until he is shown an actual statute, while most of the board remained reserved regarding the issue. The discussion closed with board president Rebecca Fox stating that she is open to further discussing and “refining” the policy, suggesting a workshop to look at potentially modifying the policy.