Florida School Board Moves to Censor Speakers and Prohibit Broadcast of Public Comments

'We’ve seen a taste of what can happen when there aren’t guidelines in place'
By Patricia Tolson
Patricia Tolson
Patricia Tolson
Reporter
Patricia Tolson, an award-winning political columnist and investigative reporter with 20 years of experience, has worked for such news outlets as Yahoo!, U.S. News, and The Tampa Free Press. With The Epoch Times, Patricia’s in-depth investigative coverage of elections, education, school boards, parents’ rights, and COVID-19 mandates has achieved international exposure. Send her your story ideas: patricia.tolson@epochtimes.us
December 22, 2021 Updated: December 22, 2021

In response to months of public backlash from parents and residents opposed to forced student masking, School Board members in Palm Beach County, Florida, are proposing new rules to censor and limit the public’s ability to voice their opinions and prohibit broadcasting of all public comments.

According to the School Board of Palm Beach County website, “speakers will not be denied the opportunity to speak on the basis of their viewpoint.” Pursuant to Florida statute § 286.0114, “the public shall be given a reasonable opportunity to be heard on a proposition before a board or commission.” Florida statute § 286.011 states that all meetings of public boards or commissions must be open to the public and the minutes of the meetings must be taken, promptly recorded, and open for public inspection.

The new policy, being drafted by school board attorneys, would limit the number of people who would be allowed to speak at public meetings and the amount of time they are allowed to speak. The new rules would also prohibit any speaker from addressing any board member by name, criticizing any board member, superintendent, or district staff member, and would prohibit the broadcasting of all public comments during all board meetings.

The Board

“We have real business to attend to,” said school board member Alexandra Ayala told the Sun-Sentinel, “and we’ve seen a taste of what can happen when there aren’t guidelines in place. We’re just sitting here for hours not doing the business and we’re backed up on things that really need to get pushed through.”

“I am a firm believer that a vibrant democracy requires engaged citizenry,” Ayala told The Epoch Times in response to a request for a statement about her comments. While insisting “our students, parents, employees, and taxpayers play a crucial role in sharing unique insights about the efficacy of the district’s operations and often illuminate opportunities for significant improvement,” Ayala did not answer the question of identifying precisely what “business” the board is “backed up on” and unable to “get pushed through” while “just sitting here for hours” listening to public comments of her “engaged citizenry.”

Board member Erica Whitfield told The Palm Beach Post her constituents are “truly there to speak” to the board but “to people on TV,” and because the board is “giving them a platform … more people come” making it “very difficult for us to get the job done.”

Whitfield did not respond to a request by The Epoch Times to clarify her statement.

Board member Karen Brill has said curtailing public comments limits the ability of residents to communicate their concerns and makes board members less in touch with their constituents.

“I think the policy is too reactive to what’s been going on,” Brill told The Epoch Times, and while she understands the concerns of her colleagues about getting business accomplished and recalled a few meetings where speakers went until 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., Brill said she couldn’t think of any business the board has been unable to complete because of public comments.

When meetings run late into the night, Brill admitted she gets tired and she’s “not as sharp” as when the meeting first started. “But we still got through everything,” she said. “Work is not being prevented.”

Brill, a realtor who spent “many years on the other side of the dais as an activist for students with disabilities,” said “the most disturbing part of the policy is shutting off the cameras” and not allowing public comments to be seen or heard by anyone who is unable to physically attend the meeting.

“I find that very troubling,” Brill said. “First of all, we report to the public, and when a person makes an effort to come talk to us, whether they are saying something we agree with or not, it’s still our responsibility to listen. We need to have a forum where people are allowed to air their grievances. It’s important that they feel they can come and speak. I just feel very uncomfortable limiting the public. We have to be careful in how we limit people. I don’t know of any entity or any other municipality where they shut the cameras off during public comments. To have the meeting begin and have elected officials and representatives from organizations come speak to us and have their faces seen and voices heard and then shut off the cameras and the voices while the public speaks, I find that very disrespectful, and I think I’m out of step with the rest of the board on that. I will stay as late as it takes for us to accomplish the business we have to accomplish,” Brill said. “I don’t see the need for the extreme changes we’re making. I don’t mind staying. That is my job. I am in this position to serve the public.”

The Citizenry

Jennifer Showalter, mother of six and candidate for Palm Beach County School Board.
Jennifer Showalter, mother of six and candidate for Palm Beach County School Board. (Courtesy of Jennifer Showalter)

“The parents, citizens, and employees of Palm Beach County have been actively seeking dialog with the school board for over a year,” Jennifer Showalter, mother of three and candidate for Palm Beach County School Board District Six, told The Epoch Times. “They have been exercising their First Amendment rights without violence, yet have been stigmatized as problematic for the school board’s agenda. The board, per their statements to the Palm Beach Post, labeled most speakers as attention seekers looking for publicity, not as concerned parents attending simply to speak to the board. I personally have attended the school board meetings for a year, and I can verify this is untrue. Most of the parents are nervous and inexperienced when it comes to public speaking, yet they feel compelled to attend to speak up on behalf of their children. Some are ostracized by the community for their efforts. I am running for office due to the board’s disrespect of First Amendment rights, prohibiting parental involvement, and pushing a radical agenda. They have been operating without oversight and accountability for too long. The people are awake, and realize they must be more involved in the education of their children.”

Erinn Boyle, another parent, believes the actions of the board to silence public comments are very revealing.

“The Palm Beach County school board limiting public input just proves that they don’t actually care about the children,” Boyle told The Epoch Times. “It shows they only want full control. They have their own agenda. I’ve already had to pull my daughter out of school due to the mask mandates earlier this year because it was affecting her medically to wear a mask all day. She’s a senior this year and now is doing virtual school because of this. It is very sad. The entire board needs to be removed. They are trying to indoctrinate our children now, filling their heads with CRT. Where does it stop?”

Bethany Ann, a concerned parent and taxpayer who comes from a family of educators, is in disbelief that it has come to this.

“Never in my life would we expect to see the voices of parents and concerned citizens not only disregarded but disallowed,” Bethany Ann told The Epoch Times. “If we are not allowed to be a part of the conversation with a school board that makes decisions on how our precious children are taught, or whether they are allowed to breathe freely, then we should form our own schools where we can be a crucial part of those decisions. Parents have every right to voice their concerns. Any school board attempting to shut down free speech and public comment should be fired. Elected or otherwise, any entity funded by we the people, needs to hear from we the people when they are not upholding their duty to do what’s best for the children.”

Jean-Marie Nacer, a nurse, taxpayer and parent who home schools her child, told The Epoch Times that the proposed policy changes of limiting public comments were concerning enough for her to attend a school board meeting for the first time.

“How will the public who is not present at the board meetings obtain or be able to hear comments from members of the public who speak at the board meetings if you do not broadcast them?” Nacer asked rhetorically. “Will the public who was unable to attend a board meeting have to go through a records request just to obtain comments from community members that were made during a public meeting?”

The proposed policy changes of limiting the number of speakers and the amount of time each person can address the board is another concern for Nacer. “Have you considered the possibility that certain special interest groups or groups who unite with ‘group think’ about a certain agenda item may coordinate an effort to quickly book up those first come first serve sign-ups to speak on an agenda item; therefore limiting diverse views from being addressed to the board at the board meetings?”

Everett Cooper, a 33-year-old Palm Coast County, Fla. resident was seized, arrested and lead away in handcuffs fr refusing to sit down at an Aug. 25 school board meeting.
Everett Cooper, a 33-year-old Palm Coast County, Fla. resident was seized, arrested and lead away in handcuffs fr refusing to sit down at an Aug. 25 school board meeting. (Courtesy of Jennifer Showalter)

“They have used intimidation by show of force with their large personal police force, who will do the board’s bidding regardless of lawfulness of the orders,” Everett Cooper told The Epoch Times. Cooper, a 33-year-old man who suffers from back pain, was seized, forced out of the room, arrested by officers, and lead away in handcuffs at an Aug. 25 meeting for refusing to sit down in the unmasked section of the room. Many parents had gathered at this meeting to voice opposition to the board’s vote to seek legal action against Gov. Ron DeSantis for his ban on forced masking in schools. “They use arbitrary, senseless, and unlawful rule changes in order to control, subdue, and remove the parents from the meetings,” Cooper said. “One of these rule changes resulted in myself being violently arrested with eight officers attempting to take me down, including a clenched hand around my throat; and I sustained injuries which left blood dripping from my fingers.  Now they move to directly limit and impede our First Amendment rights.”

Kayla Drick is another Palm Beach County (PBC) parent who has had enough.

“The School District of Palm Beach County’s attempts to silence the community via public comment will surely enhance the distrust that has already been formed within our community” Drick told The Epoch Times. “School board members have acted unlawfully, and against their constituents, and now do not want to hear the outcry of it. This is unconstitutional, and I expect the amount of students being pulled from the public school system to surpass neighboring Broward County’s drops soon. The parents have had enough.”

Bailey Hastings Lashells, mother and candidate for Palm Beach School Board District 3 is tired of board members who try to censor comments they don’t like.

“I have been in the boardroom many times when Frank Barbieri has filled excess of an hour with public comment from those in favor of the agenda that is being proposed that day,” Lashells told The Epoch Times, “so it seems to me what they are really trying to do is eliminate their constituents’ voices completely.”

Epoch Times Photo
Gov. Ron DeSantis signs bills countering vaccine and mask mandates in Brandon, Fla., on Nov. 18, 2021. (Jannis Falkenstern/The Epoch Times)

Lashells is the mother of Fiona, the seven-year-old who was punished with 38 days of out of school suspension and 41 days of discipline (silent lunch, temporary removal from class, and in school suspension) for refusing to wear a mask. Her activism even caught the attention of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Candace Owens.

“I think the way Fiona was censored just weeks ago by the board after just half of the allotted three minutes is proof positive this is a terrible idea,” Lashells insisted. “The board seems to have zero accountability any longer and that is unacceptable as a stakeholder. If we do not protect our constitutional freedoms, then we have to question whether our children will still have them.”

Lori Scalise, a mother of five in the PBC School District, is tired of being ignored by those who are supposed to work for her.

“It is completely inappropriate for the Palm Beach County School Board to block public comment, as they work for us, the public,” Scalise told The Epoch Times. “I have been to a few school board meetings and made statements via phone, all of which were completely ignored by the school board. I did not even receive answers to any of my emails from them regarding any questions I asked of them. They had absolutely no interest in hearing my concerns about my 4-year-old, autistic, nonverbal, daughter being forced mask at school. Parents’ concerns about their children’s well-being are very valid and must continue to be heard.”

Gloria Tucker, a PBC mother and candidate for Jupiter Town Council, agrees.

“Since this pandemic began, the overreach of the Palm Beach School Board has gone too far,” Tucker told The Epoch Times. “They are trying to silence our voices, taking our First Amendment right away. As parents we need to hold the school board accountable for their actions and decisions on behalf of our children. They forget they work for us.”

Patricia Tolson
Patricia Tolson, an award-winning political columnist and investigative reporter with 20 years of experience, has worked for such news outlets as Yahoo!, U.S. News, and The Tampa Free Press. With The Epoch Times, Patricia’s in-depth investigative coverage of elections, education, school boards, parents’ rights, and COVID-19 mandates has achieved international exposure. Send her your story ideas: patricia.tolson@epochtimes.us