York City School District officials likely violated Pennsylvania law and the First Amendment when they restricted public comment at a school board meeting Wednesday, according to an attorney who specializes in the Sunshine Act.
Board members told a packed room of New Hope Academy Charter School supporters they could not comment about anything related to New Hope, which will close after this academic year unless the school's appeal to a panel of Commonwealth Court judges is successful.
A district decision in 2012 not to renew New Hope's charter triggered the legal case pending in court.
The board also prohibited comment from people under 18 and those who failed to fill out a registration form at least two days before the meeting.
At the meeting, the board's solicitor, Jeff Gettle, said those restrictions were part of the board's comment policy.
Reaction: But all three restrictions are likely violations of the Sunshine Act and the constitutional right to free speech, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
"The intent of the law is to encourage participation," she said. "That's clearly not what's happening here."
Many of the people who had registered to comment but were denied access to the podium were New Hope students under 18.
The Sunshine Act guarantees residents and taxpayers "a reasonable opportunity" to comment at each advertised meeting, and that certainly includes students, Melewsky said.
"I think it raises significant Sunshine Act and constitutional issues," she said. "More importantly, what a terrible example. I mean, what a terrible thing to tell your students: 'You can't come and tell us what you think.' That's just wrong. School boards and educators should encourage student participation in the civic process."
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled before that students do not surrender their First Amendment rights inside school buildings, Melewsky added.
Melewsky said public agencies can ask members of the public to pre-register to comment, "but I don't think they can require it."
"All it does is create a significant barrier to access," she said.
And, finally, the school board's restriction on the content of public comment "raises serious Sunshine Act issues as well as constitutional issues," Melewsky said.
The public has the right to comment on matters that are not on the board's agenda, she said.
People who feel their rights were violated have two potential recourses, Melewsky said.
They can file a private criminal complaint to be evaluated by the district attorney. Or, they can file a civil lawsuit, she said.
Margie Orr, the school board's president, declined to comment. She referred questions to Gettle, who could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday..
— Reach Erin James at firstname.lastname@example.org.