It’s a right guaranteed in our Constitution – the right to give public officials a piece of your mind. But some public boards in the Sunshine State are limiting your right to freely criticize them and their employees.
Teacher Thais Alvarez say it’s happened to her several times during Miami-Dade’s school board meetings.
When she named Superintendent Alberto Carvalho at a board meeting. She was politely interrupted by board chair Perla Tabares Hantman who said, “I don’t mind you talking about whatever you want to speak about without naming names.”
On another occasion when she said the superintendent’s name, she was again interrupted by Tabares Hantman who said, “I’m sorry I don’t want to interrupt you, but remember what the attorney indicated, that no names were permitted,”
And it’s not just Alvarez. Student Thomas Bryant mentioned the name of a school administrator. That’s when the board chair interrupted him and said, “You mentioned a name of the member of the cabinet. Okay. I’d appreciate if you don’t.”
We asked Tabares Hantman where she found the authority to censor name-dropping.
“Not everyone comes with complimentary things and we sit there and we have to listen because that’s part of what this democracy is,” said Tabares Hantman
But she says the critical comments can’t include names.
“No names because that’s the policy,” said the board chair.
But school board attorney, Walter Harvey, says it’s not a policy.
“I want to stress there’s never been a blanket prohibition on the use of names and stating names. There’s never been a blanket prohibition on it,” said Harvey.
The school board’s policy is that speakers cannot address board members by name – and it says no personal attacks against anyone, but says nothing about merely naming the superintendent or administrators or teachers or principals.
It also prohibits personal attacks, profanity or loud, abusive behavior.
“They’ve said that there is a long standing policy in the school board to not allow people to say names to which I responded a long standing policy of the school board does not trump the first amendment,” said Alvarez.
But we found examples where Tabares Hantman has let people mention names in a positive light.
Tabares Hantman says she's doing nothing wrong.
"Our experts have told us that this does not violate the First Amendment at all," she said.
Barbara Peterson from Florida’s First Amendment Foundation calls the practice nonsense.
“These are public servants they work for us,” Peterson said. “They represent our interests and we have a right to tell them what we think of the job they’re doing. It doesn’t make any sense and I think those policies violate the First Amendment.”
And it’s not just a Miami-Dade school board issue.
A group in Collier County produced a video to show its frustration with the decorum policy. The video shows members of the public being stopped while speaking for using terms such as “superintendent.”
“Sir, you will speak to issues and not people,” said the Collier school board chair Kathy Curatolo, interrupting one of the speakers.
Alvarez, the teacher who is also a lawyer -- is hoping Miami-Dade’s practice gets challenged in court.
“I know there are many school boards throughout the United States that happen to have this policy,” said Martinez. “But it doesn’t mean just because this is a policy that is pervasive that it’s constitutional.”
We checked Broward County and found its school board does not cut off speakers who happen to mention names.
Miami-Dade’s board chair says she is working hard to stop all names from being mentioned during public hearings regardless of the nature of the comment. The ACLU also told us they’re concerned by the videos we showed them and consider it a violation of the First Amendment.