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Court rules Natick School Committee speech policy unconstitutional

The Middlesex Superior Court has ruled that the Natick School Committee’s policy governing the public speaking portion of its meetings violates the free speech provisions of the Massachusetts Constitution.

According to the ruling, the policy affords the School Committee too much discretion to silence unwanted criticism.

The ruling was issued in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Massachusetts and Todd & Weld, LLP on behalf of Corey Spaulding and Karin Sutter, two mothers of former Natick Public School students.  The lawsuit, filed in April, seeks to protect the free speech rights of the plaintiffs and others.

Ms. Spaulding and Ms. Sutter brought the lawsuit after the School Committee shut down their respective attempts to express their concerns about Natick Public Schools during the School Committee’s “Public Speak” period that is designed for “any individual to voice an opinion or concern on any school-related issue that is not on the [School Committee] agenda.”

In response to Ms. Spaulding’s and Ms. Sutter’s attempts to voice their concerns at “Public Speak,” the School Committee interrupted the mothers and suspended the meetings, invoking an unconstitutional policy that allowed the School Committee to regulate speech on the basis of the content of that speech, and for practically any reason at all.  The School Committee has claimed it can silence speech, for example, because it finds the speech “improper,” not “appropriate,” or “sensitive.”

The Court has now declared that the Committee’s policy unconstitutionally allows for discrimination on the basis of the content of the speech and is not narrowly tailored to serve a legitimate public interest.  The Court also declared that the Committee violated the rights of the individual plaintiffs on three separate occasions.

“The Court’s decision is a vindication of the free speech rights of Ms. Spaulding, Ms. Sutter, and every member of the public, which is as important in these times as ever before,” said Benjamin Wish of Todd & Weld, lead counsel on the case.  “Our elected leaders must be able to listen to speech that is critical of their behavior if they hope to represent those they are elected to serve.”

“I am very grateful to the Court for recognizing the importance of free speech at School Committee meetings,” said Ms. Spaulding. “This is an important lesson for our children about how democracy is supposed to work.”

“This is so important to parents’ ability to advocate for a quality education for their children,” said Ms. Sutter.  “We are grateful that the Court reaffirmed the importance of free speech at our local School Committee meetings.”

“This decision is an important step in protecting free speech in public forums, which is a bedrock safeguard of our democracy, ” said Ruth Bourquin, senior attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

At the Jan. 8, 2018 “Public Speak,” the School Committee silenced Ms. Spaulding’s attempt to express her concerns about the emotional harm bullying at the Natick Public Schools caused her daughter (00:49).  Members of the School Committee repeatedly interrupted her and then suspended the meeting.

At the Feb. 5, 2018 “Public Speak,” Ms. Sutter was instructed to stop speaking – including under the threat of being escorted out of the meeting – when she commented on the hostile environment in the Natick Public Schools (11:15).  The School Committee again censored her second attempt on March 12 (1:29).

Claims against individual officials – Superintendent Anna Nolin and School Committee Chair Lisa Tabenkin – remain pending.  As to those claims, the Court denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss, finding that “plaintiffs have plausibly suggested that [Mses. Nolin and Tabenkin] sought . . . to suppress the plaintiffs’ viewpoint.”