School board members free to speak their minds

Beaufort County School District Superintendent Jeff Moss.
Beaufort County School District Superintendent Jeff Moss. Staff photo

Something is terribly wrong when a school board member is told she cannot speak publicly about the school superintendent — unless, apparently, it is glowing puffery.

That’s what happened to Beaufort County Board of Education member JoAnn Orischak of Hilton Head Island.

She said Superintendent Jeff Moss should resign — and quickly felt the steel-toed boot of a bullying hierarchy that would make any of the world’s dictators proud.

Mind you, this was not a personal attack. It was not a call for Moss to be fired. It was not an implied statement on behalf of the board. It was well-reasoned, fair comment by an elected official regarding a top public official’s job performance.

She is free to say that. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees her free speech. And the Constitution trumps any impediments thrown out to muzzle her speech.

Unfortunately, Orischak was attacked for exercising her right. The board hired an attorney who wrote up two statements chastising Orischak on behalf of the board. The statement adopted by the board said it “very much regrets” a publicly-elected leader making a public statement about a public school superintendent.

Their statement tosses out threatening language about a publicly-elected leader’s public statements somehow violating an implied covenant of good faith in the superintendent’s contract.

In other words: Shut up or we’ll sue you.

It is at the very least chilling to free speech. It is a bullying tactic that is unseemly and very discouraging.

Not only is a school board member free to comment on the job performance of the top education official in the county, it is an obligation. The public expects and needs to know where board members stand on issues, and the job performance of the superintendent is one of its most important issues.

Our board instead talked about the superintendent’s job performance for eight hours over two days — in secret.

The result was a 6-4 vote to give Moss a “satisfactory” annual evaluation and a $39,600 contribution to his annuity.

This is not the first time the board majority has ganged up on Orischak, once before approving a letter of rebuke from the chairman.

It’s sad when, in a democracy, one faces such hardship and abuse for exercising free speech. In fact, it’s scary. And it needs to go away.