Sleeper butchers right to free speech

It was standing-room-only at the April 18 Shawano School Board meeting at the Shawano Community High School library, with 20 people signing up to speak during community comments. However, board president Michael Sleeper claimed listening to all 20 people wouldn't be efficient for the board and picked out who he would let speak. (Lee Pulaski | NEW Media)
By: 
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

We’ve all seen a television show or movie where someone has been kidnapped or taken hostage, and that person tries to fight back. In some cases, they’re tied up and gagged so the villains don’t have to listen to the protestations. In other cases, they’re smacked around to elicit submission.

It was disturbing to see that kind of scenario play out during the April 18 Shawano School Board meeting when board president Michael Sleeper engaged in the metaphorical version of those actions by informing the large crowd assembled in the Shawano Community High School library that he would not be allowing all of the 20 people who had signed up to speak. He claimed it was a hindrance to the board proceeding in an efficient fashion with its business.

It was impossible to ignore the irony in that statement, considering most of the people in the library had been waiting for close to 90 minutes for the board to waltz out of a closed session at the start of the meeting. Community members probably didn’t want to be postponing their dinner and family time to speak out against some actions — and in some cases, inactions — by the district and board, but they did it because they’ve felt ignored and disrespected.

Sleeper’s action exacerbated that disrespect, but more importantly, it was a direct assault on the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. One man ruled that he wasn’t going to allow those who followed all the rules to speak to have their say, and he cherry-picked who was going to speak, going against the concept of free speech.

“There’s also a tremendous amount of redundancy,” Sleeper claimed. “What I am going to do is, when I see multiple individuals that want to comment on the same topic, we’ll have one comment on that topic. We do have to be efficient.”

Efficiency is a poorly veiled attempt at censorship. Even those folks who don’t read the newspaper, listen to the radio or watch Green Bay’s news shows are aware that the school district’s relationship with the community is strained — check that, unhealthy. Censoring the outrage is not going to make it go away.

Outside of the meeting, community members have been gathering signatures on a petition to have Randi Anderson removed as superintendent, getting close to 1,200 signatures in just over a week. That petition was not allowed to be presented, which adds a second violation to Sleeper’s attack of the First Amendment — petitioning the government for a redress of grievances.

The Shawano Education Association distributed a survey that garnered more than two-thirds response from teachers about their thoughts on the condition of the school district and their faith in the administration. Speakers who planned to address the survey and its damning portrait of the Shawano School District were also denied the opportunity to speak.

Sleeper couldn’t even stick to his own rules saying that people who’d spoken at previous board meetings would not be allowed to take the podium. He made a point of saying that Christine McKinnies would be passed over, having already barked at McKinnies at a listening session the week before and claiming she needed to get her facts straight, but then he allowed Sheila Aumann to speak, even though Aumann had also taken multiple opportunities to express her views.

That action came back to bite Sleeper when Aumann didn’t filter her comments and got both raucous applause from the audience and angry gaveling from Sleeper. Instead of trying to keep negative commentary out of the meeting, board members should be hearing from all sides to make an informed decision.

Sleeper pointed out during a condescending lecture that it is a “privilege” that community members are allowed to speak during the public comments portion of the meeting, which begs the question of whether he plans to yank the agenda item entirely in future meetings if he tires of people continuing to drive the point home that the school district is proceeding in the wrong direction. It would be a bad idea, given how furious the community is, but the board’s courtship of bad ideas is not unprecedented.

There were other steps Sleeper could have taken. He could have asked the multiple people speaking on a single topic to consider letting one or two people make their point. He didn’t. He could have asked the board when it approved the agenda to consider moving the community comments after the board took care of its business or possibly break it up into two sessions — one before and one after. He didn’t.

By cutting back on community comments, it only increases the bitterness and anger. The problem with bitterness and anger is, if it’s allowed to fester, sometimes people lash out. My earlier comparison to a hostage situation didn’t include the fact that, on occasion, the person being stifled goes into a rage and beats the stuffing out of the oppressor. Is that where Sleeper and the school district want things to progress?

Michael Sleeper, do better. Shawano School District, do better. The pulse of the community right now is akin to a whistling tea kettle, but if you continue to assault the right to free speech, it could look like an erupting volcano instead.


Lee Pulaski is the city editor of NEW Media. Readers can contact him at lpulaski@newmedia-wi.com.