Clinic Secures Reversal of School District Policy that Silenced Committee Members
In March 2023, New York's Pittsford Central School District reversed a policy which mandated that all members of District committees “remain positive and supportive of the District and Committee at all times and in all settings.” The change came after an Inclusivity Advisory Committee member raised First Amendment concerns about the policy and retained the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic to advise on the matter. The Clinic sent the District a letter on the member’s behalf detailing these concerns and urging the District to immediately remove the provision from its Committee Member Code of Conduct.
After being appointed to the District’s Inclusivity Advisory Committee last fall, the committee member declined to sign the mandatory Committee Member Code of Conduct. The individual, a District parent, felt the “remain positive” provision may prevent committee members from advocating for historically excluded students and families and from providing constructive criticism of committee and District actions. The District informed the individual that committee members must sign the Code of Conduct in its entirety or be replaced.
Effective July 1st, 2023, the District states that it will remove the entire “remain positive” provision from the Code of Conduct and replace it with a narrower provision that asks committee members to “advocate and work productively with the District, both within and outside of committee meetings, in order to solve problems as they arise.” In the meantime, the District allowed the Clinic’s client to sign a version of the Code of Conduct with the “remain positive” provision deleted and the new provision inserted. As a result, they will remain a member of the Inclusivity Advisory Committee without fear of being removed from the committee for exercising their First Amendment rights.
“With this change,” they stated, “other committee members and I will feel more welcome to share meaningful critiques of the District and speak up on behalf of marginalized students, without fear of removal. I am grateful that the District has agreed to update the Code of Conduct and that I will be able to continue my work on the Inclusivity Advisory Committee.”
“School committees such as the Pittsford Schools’ Inclusivity Advisory Committee serve vital roles in improving and enhancing schools,” stated Christina Neitzey, Stanton Fellow in the First Amendment Clinic. “But to effect real change, committee members must be able to voice concerns and criticisms as they arise, without fear of removal. We are pleased that the District was responsive to our client’s concerns and made this change.”
“This decision marks an important step toward greater inclusion in the Pittsford Schools,” added Clinic student Alison Draikiwicz, who assisted in drafting the demand letter. “Without this restriction on committee member speech, committee members will be freer to work meaningfully with the District, acknowledge issues within the District, and advocate for positive change.”
Although the District allowed the Clinic’s client to sign a version of the Committee Code of Conduct omitting the “remain positive” provision, the District did not respond to the Clinic’s inquiry about any plans on the District’s behalf to inform other current committee members that they are not bound by the “remain positive” provision between the present time and July 1, 2023, when the revised Code will take effect.
The First Amendment Clinic team was led by Clinic students Alison Draikiwicz, Cameron Misner, and Yifei Yang, and supervised by the Clinic’s Stanton Fellow Christina Neitzey.
Contact: Christina Neitzey, firstname.lastname@example.org, (910) 620-5282