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Silencing dissent in NH: Soviet Regional School Districts

April 02. 2014 11:08PM

“Did we suddenly in that part of New Hampshire get taken over by the Soviet Union?”

That was the reaction of Gail Cromwell of Temple, former ConVal School Board member and winner of the 2010 Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment Award, upon hearing what the Timberlane Regional School Board did on March 20.

On a 7-2 vote, the board adopted many rules of behavior for its members. One of the rules declares that “all decisions made by the board will be supported by all board members regardless of how a member voted.”

If that were not clear enough, it decrees, with a true Soviet flourish: “Efforts to undermine a decision will not be tolerated.”

The very next rule reads: “All communication to the press will be provided by the Chair. Board members contacted by the press will not comment and direct the press to contact the Chair.”

“Undermine?” “Tolerated?” “Will not comment?” Is this a local school board or the Politburo?

“These are not American rules,” Cromwell told this newspaper. “These are some Communist country or some country where they’re trying to control everything. People shouldn’t stand for that.”

No, they should not. Cromwell has led this fight by example, and her leadership should inspire others to stand up against these ongoing and outrageous attempts to suppress free speech.

In 2010, when she was on the ConVal School Board, Cromwell opposed a $4.9 million school bond that a board majority supported. She spoke out against the bond and held her own public meeting to discuss it. For that, the board voted 8-2 to censure her. Its censure resolution declared: “Board members are to accept all board decisions once they are made, and assist in carrying them out effectively. If a member should be of the minority on any vote, that member will abide by the majority opinion and not speak outside of any board meetings against any majority decision which was reached in good faith.”

Cromwell, a former assistant professor of economics at Harvard and MIT, was not the type to be cowed into silence by such bullying. Now she is standing up for minority board members’ rights in other communities. That she is still doing this four years later is a sad testament to the never-ending need to fight oppression by elected majorities.

Cromwell is not alone, thankfully. The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union has stood with her. Staff attorney Gilles Bissonnette wrote to Timberlane School Board Chairman Nancy Steenson, Superintendent Earl Metzler and the school district’s attorney last week. Bissonnette informed them that if the unconstitutional rules were not changed by April 3 (today), the NHCLU would “act accordingly.”

That language got the board’s attention. The board is to vote soon on new rules that closely match the NHCLU’s proposed language. By raising the alarm, Cromwell and the NHCLU scored a win against speech suppression. It will not be the last time such a public service is needed.

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