For the longest time, comment periods at public meetings allowed average citizens to speak their minds about issues that were important to them. Sure, there were always some cranks who were there to complain about some imagined slight or malfeasance, but for the most part, the comment period was a somewhat sleepy example of democracy in action.
Not anymore. And one of the primary reasons is LGBTQ+ issues in schools.
In the wake of numerous rowdy, vicious, and even violent outbursts during public meetings, officials are grappling with controlling public comment periods, even as free speech advocates warn that doing so could violate First Amendment rights. Meanwhile, the meetings have become increasingly unsafe for LGBTQ+ people and their supporters, particularly school board members, who find themselves the target of attacks.
Since the start of the current school year alone, public comment periods at school board meetings have descended into chaos and hateful LGBTQ+ rhetoric at numerous places.
- A meeting in Caldwell, ID, ended in the audience yelling at school board members after a Republican state senator berated the board for considering an anti-discrimination policy to protect LGBTQ+ students.
- Enraged parents in Grant, MI, stormed a school board meeting to complain about a student mural they deemed “Satanic” because it included pride flags.
- A member of the fascist group Proud Boys showed up at a school board meeting in Camdenton County, MO, to intimidate a seventh-grade teacher who hung a small pride flag in her classroom.
- A school board meeting in Dearborn, MI, ended early after parents angry about LGBTQ+ books in school libraries shouted down board members. A member of the LGBTQ+ community there to support the books had to be escorted to his car by police for his security.
- Parents at a school board meeting in Medford, OR, demanded that a nonbinary teacher be fired, even though the board kept telling them that personnel issues were not discussed at the meeting.
Perhaps the most notorious example of school board chaos happened in Loudon County, VA, in July 2021, when right-wing Christians staged a meltdown to protest policy to protect trans students. The event grew so disruptive that police were called and one man was arrested. As it turns out, that was just the start of a series of protests across the state that month.
Now anti-LGBTQ+ right-wingers – not all of whom are parents – are such a feature at school board meetings that disruptions are almost taken for granted.
The question is, can elected officials do anything to stop them? Civil liberties advocates say that people have a right to express their opinion, no matter how obnoxious.
“What does rude mean? What does courteous mean?” attorney Ruth Bourquin of the ACLU of Massachusetts told the Washington Post. The ACLU filed a brief supporting a challenge to the town of Southborough’s requirement that speakers refrain from “rude, personal or slanderous remarks.”
The problem, of course, is that the rudeness isn’t directed solely at the board members. It’s also directed at the LGBTQ+ community and students in particular. The school board meetings foster an atmosphere of hate that inevitably spills over into the school community.
Meanwhile, the enraged anti-LGBTQ+ crowds at the board meetings aren’t just there to express their opinions. They teeter dangerously on the edge of a mob, screaming threats at school board members. That’s a version of democracy that, thankfully, is still not taught in schools.