A YouTube video of a former Pennsbury School Board member taking the current board to task for censoring residents’ free speech has gone viral. It’s yet another example of the debate over Critical Race Theory in education sparking a parental backlash.
It began when the Bucks County district’s board took issue with citizens who criticized its diversity and inclusion efforts at its March and May meetings. Tapes of those residents’ remarks were cut from the board’s video records of its meetings. They were later put back online.
Simon Campbell spoke in June about violating people’s right to free speech. Solicitor Michael Clarke spoke over Campbell at times, but Campbell continued to speak.
Campbell, a naturalized American citizen who grew up in Great Britain, told his one-time colleagues on the board that the constitution trumped any board rules that deny residents the right to speak during the public comment session at board meetings. He recalled a time when he was on the board and someone called him a “bastard” during the comment period. He insisted the comments be left in the video of the public meeting.
“You snowflakes have a bigger problem with public comment,” said Campbell. “It seems you think you can supersede the U.S. Constitution. I’ve got news for you. School Board President Benito Mussolini, your power does not supersede that of the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment for the citizens of this great nation.”
Campbell went on to cite a 1964 Supreme Court case, New York Times v. Sullivan, and told the board if it did not want to hear what people had to say members should move to Russia, Cuba or China.
Through a right-to-know request, Campbell also unearthed emails between then-Superintendent William Gretzula, board President Christine Toy-Dragoni, and recently-hired Director of Equity, Diversity & Education, Cherrissa Gibson, Ph.D., where Gibson advocates removing the sound from resident Doug Marshall’s remarks because he used “coded racist terms known as dog whistles.” Toy-Dragoni apologizes for not using a button to mute Marshall and called herself “weak.”
Marshall, a lawyer, told DVJournal his remarks were not racist, that he opposes indoctrinating children with “divisive” Critical Race Theory (CRT), and that he quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Few people would have even known about the incident except for an email apologizing that Toy-Dragoni sent to parents afterward, Marshall said.
In addition to Marshall, residents Tim Daly and Robert Abrams were also cut off by the solicitor, Peter Amuso, who loudly told them, “You’re done.” Their remarks were then stricken from the board videos.
Near the end of the May meeting, board member Debra Wachpress thanked Amuso for his intervention to stop residents’ from speaking, saying, “We’re just not gonna stand for this.”
Campbell, for his part, called on the board to fire Gibson for her efforts to censor citizens who were exercising their right to free speech. He also told the board members to resign.
Campbell told the DVJournal that he is looking into suing the Pennsbury School District because the school board censored him but has not yet decided whether to take that step.
“Censorship by the government is unlawful,” said Campbell, who served on the board from 2009 to 2013. “The government cannot silence speech based on the simple fact that it doesn’t like it. And that’s what Pennsbury is doing. So it’s a very big problem.”
Campbell, a First Amendment activist, said the school district editing the tape of the meetings to prevent people’s comments from being heard is highly unusual.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Campbell. “I’ve never seen a situation where a local government entity has been cutting the tape. They initially cut the tape of public comment in the March and May meetings and it was only after I was kicked off at the June meeting that they went back and posted edited versions of the tape for March and May…It’s just mindboggling and a violation of the Sunshine Law, at least.”
“The government has to allow public comment…So when the government is saying we will take public comments except those that we don’t like, it’s pure fascism that they think they have the right to do whatever they want…It’s just reprehensible that any of them could sanction and condone what has taken place…This is 1930s Germany, banning of speech.”
“Watching Pennsbury is like watching a scene from 1930s Germany where fascist Stormtroopers were burning books and banning speech and congratulating themselves for doing it,” Campbell said via email later.
The school district and Toy-Dragoni declined to respond to requests for comment.