School Board Fights Are a Crucial Reminder: In America, We Citizens Rule | Opinion

Serving on a school board is one of the most thankless jobs in politics. Older folks want to keep spending (and taxes) low, while parents of school age children want to spend whatever it takes to make the education excellent. And braving this divide has gotten even tougher of late, as political skirmishes have erupted at school board meetings across the country. In a few cases, citizens have even gotten violent, or made violent threats.

Such behavior is illegal and unacceptable; no public official should ever be put in physical danger. But the violent outbursts are extreme outliers. And though angry parents have recently been compared to "domestic terrorists" and the FBI has been asked to get involved, what we're actually seeing across the nation at school board meetings is a civic uprising with an important lesson about our nation—and about who's in charge.

I don't like to brag, but I hold the highest position of power in the nation. You do, too. That's because we're American citizens. No one—not a President, a Supreme Court Justice, or any member of Congress—outranks us.

It's not an academic point. A few weeks ago, a woman who identified herself as a citizen of Mexico brought to the U.S. as a child stalked U.S Senator Kyrsten Sinema into a restroom. There she demanded Sinema vote for a pathway to citizenship, claiming Sinema was "accountable" to her. That's false: American elected officials are only accountable to the citizens in the states and districts they represent. Citizenship—not just being here—is what grants us authority over our elected officials and makes them accountable to us.

Of course, it's not just America that works this way. I spent much of last year living in New Zealand. If I'd barged into their Capitol with my American accent and started bossing around the members of Parliament and telling them what policies to pass, I'd have expected to get a polite Kiwi thrashing, at least verbally.

Citizenship in a republic means we run the joint. All the suits and pantsuits on Capitol Hill and in the state capitols report directly to us.

And this is just as true for local school boards: They are elected by, and completely accountable to, the citizens in their school district.

FBI to investigate school threats
Attorney General Merrick Garland promises to investigate and address current threats and harrassment against schools. The North Allegheny School District school board meeting on Aug. 25, 2021 discusses mask mandates in McCandless, Pa. Alexandra Wimley/Associated Press

So, when us bosses show up for a little job performance review, our employees—the school board—don't get to set the ground rules for that discussion. We do. When you see parents making demands of their school boards, that's not "domestic terrorism." It's representative democracy in action—literally.

A federal appeals court decision handed down just a few months ago squarely addresses this salient issue. The case looked at an Ohio school board policy that prohibited certain kinds of comments. The school board had prohibited anything the board considered "harassing," "antagonistic," or "irrelevant." The policy also prohibited any remarks directed toward any particular elected official. And police were authorized to use force to compel these dictates and officers. In one case, police had physically ejected a man who made remarks critical of the school board's work, though the man "spoke calmly, used measured tones, and refrained from personal attacks," according to the court's analysis after reviewing the video.

The court struck down the school board's policy as a violation of First Amendment free speech rights. And since few cases ever make it to the U.S. Supreme Court, the ruling will probably stand as the last legal word on the subject.

By invalidating the heavy-handed policy, the court held that seeking to stop citizens from criticizing elected officials is illegal viewpoint discrimination. This kind of pernicious bias, like discrimination against someone based on race or religion, is a clear-cut civil rights violation. (The court did not need to say the First Amendment does not allow citizens to threaten violence against elected officials, because that's already illegal.)

The court's ruling was clear: Parents have a constitutional right to voice their opinion at school board meetings—even angrily.

Of course, being constructive and civil has merit. But being critical and angry has its place, too. America was founded by men and women who wielded wholehearted, creative, and sustained criticism of King George III and his tirades of tyranny. The tradition of holding American elected officials accountable has continued through nearly three centuries of peaceful protests, humor, and direct action.

There is simply no constitutional right to not be offended. Even if there were, public officials—those who voluntarily run for office for the express purpose of serving us—would be relegated to the very end of the line at the complaint counter. The first shall be last, you may have heard.

So when it comes to what should be taught in the public schools that we all own and oversee, we the people have some work to do. In most cities and towns, it's time to decide whether we should keep the school board members currently on the job or fire them and hire new ones.

I'll see you at the meeting where it happens. It's not the loud one where the elected official with the gavel is in charge. It's the quiet one, on election day—where you and I are in charge.

Mark Weaver, formerly a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, is an attorney and crisis communications expert. He is the author of the book "A Wordsmith's Work." Follow him on Twitter: @MarkRWeaver.

The views in this article are the writer's own.