Jan. 18 Board of Trustees meeting plagued with discourse regarding new policy

Posted on 20 January 2018 by admin

Student leader speaks out on First Amendment concerns with proposed rules for addressing board

*1/25/18: This article has been updated to reflect new information regarding board policies.


Meramec student Xavier Phillips addresses the STLCC board of trustees during the Jan. 18 meeting. PHOTO: NOAH SLINEY

Meramec student Xavier Phillips addresses the STLCC board of trustees during the Jan. 18 meeting. PHOTO: NOAH SLINEY

STLCC’s first Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting this year was lively with discussion after Meramec student Xavier Phillips questioned the legality of a proposed policy change.

The meeting took place at STLCC’s Corporate College in Bridgeton on Thursday, Jan. 18. On the agenda was a vote to lodge new, stricter policies for the public forum section of board meetings, during which students, faculty, staff or other attendees can sign up to address the board directly. If approved, the policies would be further discussed and voted on at the next meeting following standard board policy.

Much of the proposed policies were the same as in the past; speakers still must sign up prior to the beginning of the meeting and their time will still be limited to two minutes. Changes included a clause restricting certain things like “insults,” “comments that are unduly repetitious” and “attempting to engage individual board members in conversation.” The changes would also make it so anyone engaging in “demonstrations of any kind” including booing or clapping could be asked (and if necessary, forced) to leave the room.

The new policies are in reaction to the Nov. 30 board meeting, during which student protesters threw themselves onto the floor in front of the board table in order to delay a vote to reduce up to 70 faculty members in the midst of heavy budget cuts.

“We decide how we allow people to come and address the board,” said Trustee Craig Larson. “[A protest] isn’t part of the policy; it was an attempt to stop the work of the college. I would hope that civil discourse is the norm we want to establish.”

Before the vote could occur, Phillips, president of the Student Social Action Committee (SSAC), voiced concerns with certain restrictive language within the new policies. To support his concerns, Phillips cited two Supreme Court cases: Tinker v. Des Moines and Bethel School District v. Fraser.

In Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court upheld several student’s rights to wear black armbands in silent protest of the Vietnam War. In Bethel School District v. Fraser, however, the Supreme Court denied a student’s right to use sexual innuendos in a speech at school. According to Phillips, these cases are telling as to what constitutes First Amendment rights.

“What I’m trying to draw is a picture about the fine line between what is acceptable as protest in a democratic society and what is not,” said Phillips. “Pay attention to the point about no demonstration like clapping. It would be different if we were not allowed to clap the entire meeting but restricting it to the public address section is an infringement on First Amendment rights. Removing them for simple protesting or any form of public demonstration cannot be upheld.”

Phillips’ points were well received by several board members. Trustee Pam Ross described many of the policies as “rather subjective,” noting that a speaker might not know what constitutes an insult or an unduly repetitious statement.

“What we’re telling people is they can only talk to us if they’re nice. I don’t think that’s what the First Amendment is about. I have a lot of concerns about this,” said Ross.

Trustee Libby Fitzgerald also expressed concerns, stating that she has done a lot of research on the subject and found that no other school district has anything approaching the board’s proposed policies.

“I just feel really negative about it,” said Fitzgerald. “At this point I cannot support it.”

General Counsel Mary Nelson, who penned the proposed changes, defended her amendments.

“Some institutions don’t allow people to address the board. I tried to compile policies that would allow people to comment on items on the agenda…but would still allow the board to conduct its business,” said Nelson.

Larson proposed to approve the lodging and agreed that further discussion should occur. He also warned the board to avoid giving the impression that their meetings are a forum for attendees with no limitations on speech or action.

“When you protest you’re often breaking the law. I want to make sure we don’t set the precedent that you can come to the board and bring 20 other people and say anything,” said Larson.

Trustee Kevin Martin proposed an amendment to Larson’s motion which would include a window of time to accept public input on board policies. According to Martin, this would allow the board to see how people interpret certain language contained within the policies, which could then be amended based on feedback before attempting the vote again. Chancellor Jeff Pittman agreed to help create an online survey to gather the data.

At the end of the discussion, Ross and Fitzgerald were not swayed. Both voted against lodging the new policies but were outnumbered by five yes votes The amendment will be voted on after a period of public feedback and alterations at the February BOT meeting.

Before continuing with the remainder of the meeting, Chairwoman Doris Graham, who remained silent during much of the debate, left attendees with some maternal advice.

“I know the difference between bad manners and protests,” said Graham. “There is no reason for bad manners. I got that from my mom.”

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