The school board subcommittee has made quick work on a recommendation to limit audience applause at school board meetings. They recommend adding the following language to public comment direction: “In order to maintain a respectful public forum, members of the audience will please limit applause to occasions of student performance, employee recognition, and significant community contributions which are celebrated by everyone present.”
The recommended change comes just two weeks after School Board Member Susan Lovenburg complained about applause that she said “interrupted the proceedings multiple times at the last meeting” during discussion of the issue of AIM.
She said, “I just think we as a board that supports a democratic forum where all opinions should be respected – I would just like to see if we have some interest in establishing a bit more of a protocol around applause than we really permitted at the last meeting.”
Ms. Lovenburg was backed by Barbara Archer and Tom Adams, with Alan Fernandes more circumspect.
Ms. Archer added, “I think it got a little out of control on the (April) 21st. Our goal is to have people feel like no matter what their opinion is… this is a safe place to express it. We could go back to jazz-hands.”
As the Vanguard noted in its column a week ago, the school board and city council over the years have left the decision about audience applause to the presiding officer. The policies have varied from restricting applause to in recent years allowing it.
While I personally tend to believe that applause is distracting from the content of the public comments, the language recommended here seems unnecessarily limiting. The language here could simply be to request that the public be respectful of all views, and grant the presiding officer the discretion to limit applause when needed.
The issue of applause seemed only tangential to the true complaint, which was that someone heckled one of the speakers.
As board member Tom Adams put it, “It was really disconcerting and this wasn’t the only meeting – it’s when people try to shout down and interrupt someone making public comment. To me we provide this forum and I believe that … first of all, it’s always hard for people to come to a public meeting. Second, it’s doubly hard for someone to approach the podium and actually make a comment.”
“For me, I really want them to feel safe and comfortable in making that. The fact that someone would try to interrupt someone to me is not what we’re about as a town, as a community, and our school system,” he said. “We want to model the behavior that our students should have and we should make sure that we have reasoned debate. It’s okay to have different opinions but when you have been given three minutes to talk, and that’s the only shot you get, then you should feel like you won’t be interrupted or that you have to deal with applause and any other thing that might keep you from making your point.”
In my view, the issue of applause is separate and distinct from the issue of heckling. The fact that the people who brought up this issue were on the opposite side of the fence from the bulk of the commenters and that they raised the issue of applause concurrent with the incident of heckling should at least be noted.
In my review of the video from that meeting, the heckling incident was a single incident. It occurred at 2:43:30 on the video from April 21 and the public commenter was speaking when someone behind her said something that was not intelligible on the video.
What the board members failed to note is that Ms. Sunder immediately stated, “Let the speaker finish, please,” and gave her extra time to speak.
So the one incident had nothing to do with applause, it was handled appropriately by the president, and none of the board members noted that at the meeting on Thursday.
Tom Adams reiterated, “What I have no tolerance for is someone interrupting someone while making public comment or trying to shout them down. I think we should have no tolerance for that.”
Susan Lovenburg said, “It is the president’s prerogative to run the meeting, the board can set protocols.”
Indeed, but why be overly restrictive when the board president has the ability now to limit applause and the chief complaint was not applause, but heckling – something that was handled in real time by the board president?
This just seems like an effort to crack down on dissent by the public rather than an effort to allow board meetings to run more smoothly. The board should reconsider less restrictive language – giving the president the direction that they can crack down, rather than ordering applause to be shut down.
—David M. Greenwald reporting