GOSHEN, NY – When the Middletown school board president Will Geiger refused to let out-of-towner Fran Hoefer speak at the March 4 school board meeting, he violated the spirit of state Open Meetings Law, the state’s expert on the subject told the Times Herald-Recorder last week.
“If the public is given the opportunity to speak at a meeting, the board cannot distinguish among those who seek to speak,” said Bob Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government.
That opinion was accentuated this morning (March 8) at the Goshen office of Civil Rights lawyer Michael Sussman.
The attorney and the Democratic Alliance of Orange County spoke out on behalf of minority-faction members of the Middletown School Board and Hoefer.
Besides Hoefer and Sussman, Middletown board members Nick Mauro and Lynne Perkins conducted the press conference.
Sussman told Oswego County Today that the board members showed Ã¢â‚¬Å“a profound lack of accountabilityÃ¢â‚¬Â in denying Hoefer his First Amendment right to free speech.
Sussman said he heard about the incident at the school board meeting, and it piqued his interest.
“I have never heard of Mr. Hoefer until then,” he said. “When I heard he had not been allowed to speak and in essence was removed from the meeting and arrested, I was flabbergasted.”
However, the attorney said he wasn’t completely surprised. Recently, he had been invited to speak in front of the board.
“When I started speaking, three of the board members got up and left. They called a quick recess to discuss whether or not I should be permitted to speak,” he said. “So, this just isn’t something that happened out of the blue. This school board is dysfunctional.”
The board has “trashed” the First Amendment, he said, adding, “I don’t want to be a part of that.”
There were several speakers at the press conference, Sussman said. It was well attended by the general public and elected officials as well as the media, he added.
“Mr. Hoefer spoke about his situation and others spoke as well regarding the message the school board was sending by not allowing someone to speak at its meeting,” Sussman said.
According to the Times Herald-Record’s account of the press conference, Hoefer said: Ã¢â‚¬Å“I’m a peaceful man. I can be fiery, and I’m passionate about public education and what’s happening to our children. What happened to me was an act of violenceÃ¢â‚¬Â¦I don’t want to be afraid of public education, I don’t want to be afraid of autocrats carting me away.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Hoefer said he came at Mauro’s invitation, and wanted to speak on behalf of board member Roy Paul, who has been the subject of an inquiry for possible removal.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I also came here to tell this community what Ken Eastwood is,Ã¢â‚¬Â Hoefer said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“and I didn’t have to say a word to do it.”
Hoefer indicated that he would come back and attend another Middletown school board meeting in April.
“This isn’t about the content of what Hoefer had to say. We’re not taking sides here,” Sussman said. “We don’t feel it is right for them to deny his right to speak. His right to speak shouldn’t be suppressed. It isn’t right to suppress someone’s right to speak just because you don’t want to hear what they have to say or disagree with them.”
Elected officials serve the public trust by example, the attorney continued.
“This doesn’t sound kosher. They aren’t serving the public trust by denying someone the right to speak. You don’t tell someone to shut up,” he said.
This isn’t about Hoefer, Sussman explained.
“We know he and Dr. Eastwood have a history. That’s not relevant to us. We want to purge the board of anyone who would deny someone’s right to free speech. It is coincidental that Mr. Hoefer is involved,” he said.
According to Sussman, the board should apologize to Hoefer and invite him back.
“The school board president didn’t know who Mr. Hoefer was until Dr. Eastwood passed him a note. That precipitated this,” Sussman said. “Dr. Eastwood should also apologize to Hoefer Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and to the students who were at the meeting. There were young people there who need a lesson in the First Amendment rights. We have to let them know what the board did was wrong, you can’t deny someone’s right to free speech.”