Board denies endorsement policy

Published 9:24 pm Friday, January 13, 2017

The Suffolk School Board on Thursday denied a policy amendment that some felt would stifle their First Amendment rights.

The policy would have prohibited the School Board from endorsing anybody for an elected or appointed position without taking a vote during an open meeting to do so.

The proposed policy expressly stated that it would not prohibit individual members of the School Board from making endorsements as a private citizen but did provide that such endorsements must expressly state that that the endorsement is not being made by the School Board.

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“It enables the public to understand that whenever there is an endorsement by an individual board member, it is never an endorsement by the entire board,” School Board attorney Wendell Waller told members during Thursday’s meeting.

He also said it would protect individual members. “If someone tries to misconstrue your endorsement, you can fall back on this policy,” Waller said.

Waller said a violation of the policy, had it been adopted, could have resulted in a vote to censure the offending member.

“I think that what this policy has simply done is it has now put into policy what has always been, as I’ve understood it, the practice of this board,” Waller said.

Some members of the board still took issue with the policy, believing their First Amendment rights would be trampled no matter what.

“You’re trying to curtail or stifle me from expressing myself as an individual or as a board member,” board member Enoch Copeland said. “I do not want anybody up here to stifle me from voting my conscience.”

Much of the concern was over how endorsements may be presented by the endorsed candidates or reported in the newspaper, and how others would perceive that.

“I have a right to write, speak, do whatever I want with regard to a person I support,” said board member Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck. “I can’t be responsible for someone else’s understanding.”
Others pointed out that even if someone is not identified as a School Board member, that is still what they are.

“Anybody who knows me knows I’m a board member,” Chairman Michael Debranski said.

The policy was first discussed in December’s School Board meeting. In that meeting, member David Mitnick signaled that he requested the policy because another member made an endorsement for City Council in his borough. It was an apparent reference to Debranski’s letter to the editor in support of Sleepy Hole Borough Councilman Roger Fawcett’s bid for re-election in November.

This week, Mitnick rejected the suggestion that the amendment would stifle anyone’s constitutional rights.

“Your First Amendment rights for free speech are still alive and well,” he said.

The vote to deny adopting the policy was 4-3.

During an earlier reorganizational meeting, Debranski was re-elected chairman by a 4-3 vote. He was joined in support by Brooks-Buck, Copeland and Lorraine Skeeter, while Mitnick and Linda Bouchard joined Phyllis Byrum in voting for Byrum.

Copeland was the only nominee for vice chairman and therefore was elected by default.