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Commentary: Public officials should be able to disagree with each other without being disagreeable

By Brad Hughes
Special to KyForward

The 2017 session of the Kentucky General Assembly has adjourned sine die, and it didn’t come a day too soon.

I’ve observed legislative sessions – up close and at a distance – for more than four decades, and the 2017 session will live in my memory for two items of irony:

— The discussion of requiring all high school graduates in Kentucky to pass a civics test in order to earn their diplomas.

— Two instances in which elected officials used public forums to label as liars similarly elected leaders on the opposite sides of a piece of legislation.

Public officials – supposedly wishing to be example setters for Kentucky students – might take a look at how Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines civics as “the study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how government works.” A case can be made that elected officials calling other vote-backed leaders liars is hardly an example of how government “works.”

The same dictionary defines a statesman thusly: “one versed in the principles or art of government; a wise, skillful and respected political leader.”

The lack of statesmanship exhibited by some public officials – at all levels – these days became a point of a conversation I had with one of our members at this year’s KSBA conference. The conversation sparked rested on this question: What can a school board do when members disagree with public statements by their peers?

Who’s talking and about what?

In two KSBA ethics classes I’ve taught for board members, one area addressed has been that of ethical speech by board members. In both classes, we taught that voters put school board members into office with two things – their votes and their voices.

Not every vote must be explained but there are times when silence is not golden. Pro or con, in the majority or low on the vote count, board members owe their constituents an explanation of their decisions in cases of major importance or significant public interest.

At the same time, it’s a double-edged sword for board chairmen to be clear in their roles when addressing an issue. The board chairman always gets to speak as an individual member of the board and is equally always entitled to express her or his opinions.

But when you accept election as board chairman, an additional responsibility takes hold when speaking with the authority of that office. And that means being sure you represent at the very least the majority of your colleagues.

I’ve never understood the desire by some to serve as chairman of a school board. It can be an overwhelming challenge. Sometimes that means biting your tongue. At other times, it requires making it clear that even though you are the board chairman, you are speaking as one member. It’s no easy task. You don’t lose that voice, but you are tasked to be sure it’s clear for whom you are speaking when you’re talking.

When you run for public office, you accept all sorts of responsibilities. Being without a voice must never become a cost of public service. But becoming respectful in the words you choose should be a given.

The Last Word

It would be hard to find a more strident advocate of free speech than yours truly. This began long before I became a journalist. I was raised to speak up – politely and appropriately – when I had something to say.

But I also believe that there is a difference between free speech and smart speech, and free speech and ethical speech. When you call someone a liar, it demonstrates two things – your desire to denigrate the target of your attack and that your command of English is so limited that you aren’t able to make your point without maligning the person or group you are taking issue with.

If we want Kentucky’s high school graduates to learn the civics of how government works, then the elected leaders who are making those mandates and carrying them out should practice more restraint in their political speech. That goes for tweeting from the White House, too.

And that’s a message worth getting out.

Brad Hughes is Director of Member Support/Communications Services for the Kentucky School Boards Association

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