Commissioner says code of conduct violates First Amendment

By Kontji Anthony - bio | email

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - Shelby County Commissioner and University of Memphis law professor Steve Mulroy said the latest action by the Shelby County School Board may be a direct violation of the First Amendment.

At Thursday's Shelby County School Board business meeting, a new code of conduct passed the first reading.  But item 2-b is raising eyebrows for Mulroy.

"Says that no individual of the board may criticize the chairman or any member of the staff in public," said Mulroy.

The proposed new Code of Conduct for the Shelby County Board of Education says, "Members will not publicly express individual negative judgments about Chairman and staff performance outside the formal evaluation process."

Mulroy said the policy appears to violate the right to free speech.

"We're sure of one thing, the First Amendment means that people should have the right to criticize government officials," said Mulroy.  "That is the fundamental core of the First Amendment.  So to have a rule that limits a board member from criticizing the chairman or staff of a governmental body, that just seems wrong."

Mulroy added that the punishment for violating the code of conduct borders on intimidation that could hinder a commissioner from speaking freely.

"According to the policy, the enforcement would be formally calling the board member to task and then eventually formal censure.," said Mulroy.

Mulroy, who supports the proposed merger of Memphis and Shelby County Schools, would not speculate on the timing of the newly-proposed policy.

"It's hard to know what motivated it," he said.  "Whether it was aimed at School Board member Diane George who's been an outspoken critic.  Whether it's in anticipation of new school board members coming in if there's some sort of school merger or whether it's something entirely different or just coincidental.  I don't know."

Shelby County School Board Chairman David Pickler said the school board is mandated by state law to update its ethics policy.

Pickler said he modeled the language after the Davidson County School Board code of conduct that was brought to the board's attention by the county school board attorney.

He said the proposal has nothing to do with commissioner Diane George's criticism of the board for extending county superintendent John Aitken's contract through 2015, just a week before the school merger vote.

The code of conduct has one more reading.

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