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Pinellas County School Board locks down public comment at meetings

 The board voted unanimously in favor of the new policy.
Pinellas County School Board
The board voted unanimously in favor of the new policy.

School board meetings across the country have become increasingly heated — including those in the greater Tampa Bay region.

Now, the Pinellas County School Board is making slight changes to exert more control over public comment at meetings. The board voted unanimously to approve the new policy at last week's meeting.

The changes are not substantive, the board's attorney David Koperski told members at last week's meeting, but do clarify the system.

The amended policy states that individuals can be interrupted or cut off if their comments are harassing or disrupt the order of the meeting.

Members of the public expressed their disapproval to the board. One parent, Dulce Gonzalez, said the changes restrict the public.

"Any infringement on our First Amendment rights is wrong,” she said. “So it's gross that you're even having a conversation to limit further what we can say, how we can say it, how long we can say it. It's just proving to the people that you are scared, you don't like what we have to say."

The board was considering other shifts as well — such as changing the amount of speaker time or the deadline for public comment. But neither made it into the final policy.

Members wanted to make sure individuals had enough time to speak, said Chairwoman Eileen Long.

“We are trying to be transparent and up front,” she said. “They need to realize just how open and what an opportunity we’re giving the public. We want to hear from people. But we’re can’t not allow people using the F-bomb every few words or making threats.”

That kind of behavior isn’t appropriate for a school board meeting, Long added.

At the meeting, resident David Happe told board members the changes attempt to silence the public's voice.

“Shame on you. “We have a First Amendment right. ... Pinellas County School Board, you’re not going to take it. you're not going to take it away.”

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