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School Board Meetings Show Only That Freedom Is Messy

Salena Zito on

PITTSBURGH -- Twenty years ago, Paul Carson said he never would have hesitated to speak out at a school board meeting about any issue affecting his children's education.

But one day, that changed. "I just don't do it," Carson told me. A physician who practices medicine in an urban Pittsburgh hospital, Carson said it has nothing to do with his being 20 years older. "It has everything to do with the culture we are navigating."

Anyone, he said, can take a video of what you say, edit it to his or her advantage, then post it on social media. Or they can just simply claim on social media that you are racist or extremist because you express an opinion outside the sensitivities of the cultural curators who define what is acceptable and what is not in our country.

When Carson used a media platform in discussions about school district issues , as he did last year when the children in the Pittsburgh public schools went for months without in-person education, he said he had to be "profoundly cautious" in expressing his views.

School board meetings have been around forever, and they have always had the potential to become raucous. I remember attending them with my mother as a teenager, then as a mother myself when my children were young. I also had to attend a few as a reporter for the local newspaper I worked for at the time. Emotions often ran high, as they should when children's welfare is involved. Good parents never lose sight of the fact that the people who educate their children spend more of the day with them in a classroom setting than parents themselves do. Emotions also ran high when new buildings were proposed, which always eventually meant higher taxes.

I have often told young reporters that if they want to see firsthand the most important political process in the U.S. system, they should turn off cable news, get off the iPhone, turn their eyes away from Washington and cover a local school board meeting.

 

No one should accept threats or physical violence at a school board meeting or anywhere else. But such conduct is fortunately rare. The question today is, can we trust our government to distinguish between the actual threat of violence and the passionate expression of viewpoints by parents?

That question became a reality this week when Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo suggesting a nationwide federal crackdown on parents at school board meetings. And the answer from parents like Carson is, "Absolutely not."

Garland made his decision under pressure from the National School Boards Association. Its interim director responded by saying Garland's memo sends a "strong message to individuals with violent intent who are focused on causing chaos, disrupting our public schools, and driving wedges between school boards and the parents, students, and communities they serve."

Freedom is messy. Our discussions about things that matter to us, such as our children, are chaotic, disruptive and, yes, divisive. They drive wedges -- that's a feature, not a bug.

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