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Commentary: Confusion and doubt stoke the fires of democracy

By John Diers

I’m a septuagenarian and a skeptic. I’ve always been suspicious of majorities and their penchant for simple solutions to complex problems — solutions that are, as H. L. Mencken put it, “clear, simple, and wrong.”

I’m not a “team player” preferring to keep, on most issues, what my grandfather called “an open mind and a critical attitude.” But I do understand that it’s easy to get comfortable with consensus and be one with the group. There’s strength and safety in numbers, especially when the group decides it’s time to ferret out heresy and punish dissent. Consider the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, the Army McCarthy hearings, or the behavior of the Prior Lake-Savage Area School Board, as reported in recent editions of this newspaper. Dissent takes courage; especially in the face of bullying and censure — tactics used by the chair and the board majority to suppress the voices of board members who disagree with the majority on policy matters and choose to take their concerns public.

A community columnist made an effort to put a better face on it in the May 12 Prior Lake American, arguing that the board is “self-governing,” and by implication accountable to itself and that individual board members are bound by the decisions of the board majority. It concludes that the school board is doing a great job.

It is a reasoned argument, but its premises are flawed. The school board is not “self-governing.” It is an elected public body accountable to the greater community. The board makes policy, approves plans, sets a budget, and has the power to levy taxes — which all of us pay. It hires a superintendent and staff to manage the day-to-day business affairs of the district and carry out its educational mission.

Board members are accountable to voters and the community, not to other board members, who may have differing views, the superintendent, or school district staff, or what the writer calls the “district voice.” The school board is a board of directors and has the same range of authority and responsibility as a corporate board, or city council.

Mark Twain had some good advice: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority it’s time to pause and reflect.” Years ago, I learned in high school civics that the majority isn’t always right. Majorities can make bad decisions and terrible mistakes and impose them on others — read James Madison in the Federalist Papers, or Thomas Jefferson, or Alexander Hamilton, or the great conservative thinker, Edmund Burke. It’s called the “tyranny of the majority,” and it exists right here in Prior Lake.

The remedy is dissent — open, public dissent. The writer is correct. The school board follows a majority process. A school board member is bound to accept and abide by the decision of the majority, but that doesn’t extend to silence. If the member has good cause and disagrees with the decision, he or she has every right to respectfully express their disagreement. There is a right to hold a minority point of view, and in an elected body, accountable to voters, the majority is obligated to uphold that right and not try to suppress it through censure, or intimidation. Speaking outside the “district voice” may create “confusion and doubt” in the community, but confusion and dou bt stoke the fires of democracy. The process is an example to students. It is the First Amendment in action.

It’s asserted that, “Members have First Amendment rights, but unlike other public service roles, school board members must carefully weigh how they exercise free speech in light of board policy, governance and district voice.”

Really? I recall, again, from high school civics, a unanimous 1919 Supreme Court ruling in Schenk vs. United States that speech isn’t protected if it is dangerous and false —falsely calling fire in a crowded theater— but it is otherwise absolute. Speaking out against school board policy may be dangerous and controversial — for the school board majority. But if the majority is wrong, and the building is on fire, a board member has every right to yell, “fire”— the louder the better.

Is the school board doing a “great job?” Maybe so, but until it understands the First Amendment, it deserves no more than a gentleman’s C minus.

Please read more from The Prior Lake American: http://www.swnewsmedia.com/prior_lake_american/news/opinion/columnists/commentary-confusion-and-doubt-stoke-the-fires-of-democracy/article_8a3c0138-871a-5d4b-8517-39b07f95b0c9.html#tncms-source=article-nav-next

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com.