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RE-1 School Board Supports Members’ Right To Free Expression

Austin Cope
KSJD File Photo

As organizers of a petition seek to recall Montezuma-Cortez RE-1 School Board member Lance McDaniel based on several of his social media posts advocating for progressive causes, McDaniel’s fellow board members upheld his right to freedom of expression at their meeting on Tuesday. 

Near the end of the meeting, after approving the district’s 2020-2021 reopening plans, the board discussed whether to institute a code of ethics for board members. As board President Sherri Wright explained to KSJD after the meeting, the district does not have such a document, but she brought up the topic for discussion based on advice she had been given by outside counsel. The topic had also been discussed at a previous meeting in June.

During Tuesday’s discussion, board members did not directly address the petition or McDaniel’s posts. However, McDaniel has an active Facebook page, on which he publishes school-related announcements as well as political perspectives and opinions. Several of those posts have been identified by petitioners as grounds for McDaniel’s removal from the board.

Board member Sheri Noyes opened the discussion by addressing the importance of keeping school board members’ positions as elected officials separate from their personal opinions when posting on social media platforms.

“If our social media comments, and out-in-the-public comments, can be construed [as] the reflection of the whole board … then that’s not good,” board member Tammy Hooten said, expressing her agreement with Noyes. Board members should be “seeking systematic communications and expressions,” before posting information related to school events, instead of mixing school-related announcements with political opinions, she said.

However, McDaniel addressed a different perspective.

“First of all, there is the First Amendment, and second of all, there doesn’t [seem to be] a problem with sharing information or posting stuff on a personal site that everyone agrees with,” he said.

“It’s caused an uproar with some people,” he continued. “But I don’t feel on a personal Facebook page, that is being stalked by other people, that not being able to voice your opinions or state your opinions or make statements you believe in, is right.”

He said that it was highly unlikely that his perspectives would sway other board members or speak for the board.

Other board members agreed about the importance of upholding First Amendment rights. Board member Chris Flaherty said it was ironic that the all-volunteer school board was being held to a higher standard than other local boards, such as the Montezuma County Commission.

Commissioner Larry Don Suckla frequently posts his own views on policy, as well as county-related announcements, to his personal Facebook page.

“When people come to me and have an issue with what [McDaniel] is saying, I just say, I don’t personally agree with it, but constitutionally, it’s his right to say what he wants to say, as long as he’s not inciting violence,” Flaherty said.

“We have to expect that when it comes time for our rights to be protected and stood up for so that other people would do the same thing even when they don’t agree with us personally,” he continued.

Other board members agreed with Flaherty, and the board decided to drop the issue. Wright added she hadn’t seen what McDaniel had posted, and Hooten underscored the importance of maintaining public trust in the board.

“We’ve been elected, and we have been held to a higher standard,” she said. “Opinions are opinions, and that is our First Amendment [right]. This is just a reminder to the board of what standards we, as a board, have to live up to.”

Since the topic was raised for discussion only, the board will not take any official action related to a code of ethics at this time, Wright explained as she closed the discussion.

Austin Cope is a former Morning Edition host for KSJD and now produces work on a freelance basis for the station. He grew up in Cortez and hosted a show on KSJD when he was 10 years old. After graduating from Montezuma-Cortez High School in 2010, he lived in Belgium, Ohio, Spain, northern Wyoming, and Himachal Pradesh, India before returning to the Cortez area. He has a degree in Politics from Oberlin College in Ohio.