The Sept. 22 ruckus at the Hood River County School District board meeting was not an exercise in “free speech” but an attempt to intimidate board members and disrupt the democratic process in hopes of changing district policy.
To tell a board of directors, “We are here and we’ll take you out,” as was done at the board meeting, isn’t free speech — it’s intimidation. The suggestion that “I can sit here for three minutes and scream profanity if I choose to,” as stated by one protester, is not true either. That isn’t free speech — it’s disorderly conduct.
So what is going on?
I received a letter to the editor from one of those involved in the above protest some time ago, which I did not print. Given recent events I believe readers of the Columbia Gorge News will be best served to learn at least some of what was said in that letter, and events that followed.
The letter, titled by the author “Call for resignation,” was submitted to Columbia Gorge News following a discussion on the Hood River County School District’s Equity policy at a July work session of the board.
As editor, I am the first hurdle that must be cleared on the path to publication, and the letter, which called for a school board member’s resignation, raised a number of “red flags.” First, it implied that the author was speaking for a named citizens’ group, which I could not find any reference to.
More concerning, it claimed that during the work session the board member whose resignation they were demanding “called out to other board members, ‘[A very racist statement]!’” I will not repeat the statement here.
In support the writer offered both a link to the meeting video and the time stamp at which they claimed the alleged statement was made.
A transcript of the meeting was requested, and no such statement was found. I then listened to the full recording, and heard no such statement.
I called the author of the letter, who readily admitted the community group cited was not real. I verified the portion of the meeting in which the alleged statement was made, and said I had indeed listened to the recording and heard no such statement.
I told the author I would not be running the letter.
The next morning I received a call from a seated member of the school board, who told me the statement had in fact been made. I again verified at what point in the meeting the alleged statement was made, and told the caller I did not hear such an outcry. The board member insisted it had been said, perhaps “garbled” or said under the speaker’s breath.
It certainly wasn’t audible on tape. Which raises the question, how was the statement “heard” by the letter’s author? I can’t say, but I did look at the rules governing the HRCSD board, one of which says board members are to pursue “no hidden agendas.”
I also received two or three emails in support of the letter’s author, demanding the letter run and questioning my integrity in not running it.
I explained to each why the letter was rejected, as stated above, and pointed out that lying about someone — by claiming they “called out” a racist comment by direct quote — for the purpose of damaging that person’s reputation (i.e., starting a recall petition) isn’t free speech, it’s slander and/or libel.
So the recent disruptions at the HRCSD board meeting do not surprise me, as the “protesters” have already expressed, at least to me as an editor, a clear agenda and intent.
But in leaving the meeting as soon as the public comment period ended, the “protesters” showed their Achilles’ heel — they are performers, not leaders, and do not represent the greater community in any meaningful way.
With few exceptions, volunteer board members throughout the Gorge — whether they serve a school district, city, port, nonprofit or other agency — are honorable people seeking to improve their community.
If intimidation, recall threats and slander are used to frighten those who would otherwise serve in these important roles, we will have lost a great deal.
There is safe harbor in facts, civility, decorum, respect and the rule of law. We can support those democratic ideals by standing with those whose leadership we respect.