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Feb. 5, 2023

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ACLU says Richland School Board proposal could lead to free speech ‘abuse’ and ‘censorship’

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KENNEWICK — Richland School Board member Audra Byrd proposed Tuesday night a policy revision on the teaching of “controversial issues” but her effort failed.

Prior to the meeting, ACLU of Washington sent a three-page letter to the board, calling her proposed changes “overly vague” and that they could result in “viewpoint discrimination.”

“Without any definite, objective standards, this policy invites erratic and arbitrary application, potential for abuse, squelching of the constitutional guarantee of free speech, and runs the risk of censorship and viewpoint discrimination,” the letter read.

Tuesday night the board was scheduled to talk about amending its policy that deals with controversial issues in the classroom.

Byrd wants to define controversial issues as things that evoke “strong feelings and views,” among other criteria, in order to address concerns that teachers were sharing their personal political opinions in the classroom. She said teachers are curious about how the district defines controversial issues.

“There’s obviously confusion, there’s obviously multiple reports of these things happening, and there’s confusion about what is controversial and not, and how it should be handled. The only thing I can do is form policy to hopefully make it more clear,” Byrd said.

But some on the board felt Byrd’s amendment was too vague and that the changes were not warranted.

“I do think it does stifle conversation,” said board member Rick Jansons. “We’re hanging a sword over teachers’ heads… I think we have a process already that addresses the times when parents or kids feel like there’s a bias, and that’s been working.”

That process is to bring concerns to the principal and have them manage how their schools are run.

Jansons said he also didn’t want to be a “test case” for an ACLU challenge.

The policy revision appeared to be confusing to many attending the school board meeting, with some suggesting it appeared to be ban on discussing controversial issues.

Defining controversial issues

The changes originally proposed include a section saying students have the right to study under teachers in situations free from prejudice and “political bias.”

The proposed policy also includes defining “controversial issues” as:

  • Evoking strong feelings and views.
  • Effecting the social, cultural, economic and environmental context in which people live.
  • Dealing with questions of value and belief, and can divide opinion between individuals, communities and wider society.
  • Are usually complicated, with no clear “answers” because they are issues on which people often hold strong views based on their own experiences, interests, values and personal context.
  • Including a wide range of topics such as human rights, gender justice, migration and climate change.

Byrd’s definition appears to be from a 2018 booklet published by center-left British nonprofit organization Oxfam, according to internet search engine results.

Failed to pass

At the meeting, Byrd agreed to throw out the five bullet points in favor of this definition offered from board member Kari Williams: “Regarding this policy, controversial issues can be defined as topics that are usually complicated with no clear answers because they are issues on which people often hold strong views based on their own experiences, interests, values and personal contexts.”

The policy as a whole ultimately failed 2-2, with Jansons and board President Jill Oldson voting against it. Board member Semi Bird was absent from the meeting.

It’s unclear what impacts Byrd’s amendment would have on classroom instruction. At Tuesday night’s meeting, she said she hadn’t read the ACLU’s letter to the district.

Richland School District’s existing policy surrounding controversial issues already gives parents and guardians time to voice their opinions on controversial issues that may be discussed in upcoming curriculum. It doesn’t spell out or define what controversial issues are.

“The district shall respect the right of parent(s) or guardian(s) to be informed of controversial issues,” the existing policy reads. “Instruction that may be considered to be of a controversial nature should be well planned with enough time to allow parent(s) or guardian(s) who object to voice their opinions directly to the principal.”

The Richland board previously planned to discuss the topic of displaying flags that reflect “controversial issues” in schools at its Nov. 22 meeting, but that discussion has been delayed.

That could include changes for teachers who display Gay Pride flags in their classroom. The board is planning a survey, too.

Byrd mentioned the flag discussion Tuesday night, saying she recognizes that there is still bigotry against the LGBTQ community. She said this would not be “permission to spread hate or bigoted slurs,” but would refocus the learning environment away from labels.

“I’m hoping that these two combined can kind of help bring our district a blank slate where we can now move forward with a new effort towards belonging and dignity for each other, and all individuals in our schools,” Byrd said.

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