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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 17, 2008

Open schools foster democracy

The Guilderland School Board is debating whether or not campaigning should be allowed on school grounds. The issue was raised last spring in the midst of a hotly contested election where a pair of candidates backed by the teachers’ union was running against a trio of candidates backed by a parents’ group that had been critical of the way reading was taught.

The trio was stopped from handing out leaflets at school functions, a long-standing practice in the district. The superintendent at the time said, “We have to maintain the appearance of not permitting partisan activities on school grounds.”

It’s true that school districts in New York, by state law, can’t campaign, not even for their own budgets.  But that doesn’t preclude the constitutional right to free speech on school grounds.

School districts in New York are allowed to set parameters on what is allowed, as long as it applies equally to all. The board was right to have its policy committee research and discuss the topic to come up with an improved policy on candidates and campaigning. But the current proposal is too restrictive.

At its last meeting, the board had a heated discussion on the draft. Near the end of the debate, Gloria Towle-Hilt, the board’s newest member, elected last year with the highest vote count, had something insightful to say. Towle-Hilt had worked for years at Farnsworth Middle School, teaching social studies. 

She said she was pulled in different directions. The right to hand out literature is part of American history, she said, but a school is a “special space” and “has to be protected.”

She’s right about the handing out of literature shaping our history. Without the pamphleteers there would probably have been no revolution, and no United States of America.

She’s right, too, that schools are a “special space.” They are places of learning. Everyone in our community contributes at no small sacrifice — next year’s school budget is set at $84 million — so that future generations will be well-grounded.

We believe the best way to protect students — and our community’s and nation’s future — is to educate them in the ways of democracy.

Local elections are a close-to-home way to educate even the youngest students about how our democracy works. We’ve certainly been impressed over the years with elementary programs in Guilderland schools where kids have mounted campaigns and held elections for everything from school mascots to favorite book characters.

We don’t see why they or their parents should be put off by real candidates campaigning in their midst. We remember long-time school board member William Brinkman urging candidates years ago to get out to school events to meet people.

At last week’s board discussion, Colleen O’Connell, who was re-elected a year ago as Towle-Hilt’s running mate, raised the issue of security concerns. Candidates, like anyone else entering a school, could sign in and wear appropriate ID tags. But, if this is believed to be a problem, a designated area could be set up outside of a school building where candidates could stand and hand out their literature to anyone who was interested in stopping to see them. A suitable time period — such as two weeks before the May election — could be set aside to allow for this.

Students will be safest, and their futures will be most secure, if they understand how democracy works. Perhaps their parents will come home from a school event and talk about the leaflets and the candidates with them. Older students may well have their own ideas on who would best represent their interests.

As the proposed policy points out, students have a constitutional right to free speech and may advocate for candidates on school grounds as long as they are not disruptive. We haven’t seen much student campaigning since Luke Canfora was a high school senior and ran for the board in 1995. Many students went door-to-door for him and handed out campaign flyers at school events. Although he wasn’t elected, students were fired up about issues such as teachers’ rights to choose sometimes controversial books for students to study. We hope more students will get involved now.

It’s true, as school board members pointed out, that others could use this two-week period in May to leaflet for other causes at school events. What is the harm in that?

Students and parents who aren’t interested can walk on by, not heeding them at all. Those who are interested have a chance to learn.

The school board was wise last year to set up a series of coffee talks where board members could meet informally with the public. Face-to-face exchanges are valuable. Questions can be answered directly.

The same is true with meeting candidates. The public can better take the measure of a man or woman in person.

Every year, our newspaper devotes much time, effort, and space to covering school-board elections and to asking candidates about the issues so voters can make informed choices. And the current draft of the campaign policy allows for candidates to speak at televised board meetings and at a televised candidates’ forum. But there’s still no substitute for meeting the candidates in person and asking your own questions, face to face.

The flyers themselves can be valuable, too. We go to scores of Guilderland school events and have collected many campaign flyers over the years. They are usually produced at home by the candidate and, in addition to basic biographical information, they often give a sense of the candidate‘s philosophy on education and reasons for running. In fact, one candidate making her first run was out of town the week petitions were due and we were able to profile her in our news story along with the other candidates just by the detailed literature she had handed out at an Altamont Elementary School event.

In America today, there are fewer and fewer public places where people can exchange ideas. Malls have replaced city centers and town squares as the place where people gather.

Our nation’s history has been shaped by citizens speaking out in public places on public issues. From our earliest days, with patriots like Thomas Paine rallying forces for a revolution (“From the east to the west blow the trumpet to arms!”) to our more recent history with Martin Luther King Jr. leading a civil rights movement (“I have a dream!”), words spoken in public places have moved us.

Our First Amendment insures our right to free speech and to peaceably assemble. But not in the modern meeting place, not in malls — they are privately owned. And the owners set the rules. Making a profit is the bottom line and while shoppers may be interrupted by marketers they are not to be disturbed by candidates or leafleters with a cause.

The Supreme Court has acknowledged that, in certain circumstances, a state may recognize broader free speech rights as a matter of state law without offending any federally guaranteed rights enjoyed by the property owner.

In New York, the pivotal case was decided by the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, in 1985. In a split vote, the court decided the Shad Alliance, a group that opposed to the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity, could not hand out leaflets at the Smith Haven Mall on Long Island.

But a school should not be like a mall. It is not privately owned; it is a public institution. It’s reason for being is not to turn a profit but to educate. Its governance — by an elected board — is of utmost importance to the school community and the community at large.

A school is a place that should welcome those who want to lead and, above all, it is a place that should encourage the free exchange of ideas.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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