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Group objects to Windsor principal being disciplined over Black Lives Matter comments

  • Tiffany Riley

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/24/2020 9:37:37 PM
Modified: 6/25/2020 9:27:44 AM

WINDSOR — A national free-speech group is calling on the Mount Ascutney School District Board to restore Tiffany Riley as principal of the K-12 Windsor School, asserting it violated her constitutional rights when they moved to oust her for comments on her personal Facebook page that were seen as critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Monday’s letter from the National Coalition Against Censorship comes as the School Board’s decision to remove Riley has drawn national attention and has been fanned by conservative media outlets.

It urges the board to “set an example for your students by rescinding its decision to remove Ms. Riley, and by expressly reaffirming the right of students and staff to speak freely on matters of public concern.”

The School Board unanimously voted on June 12 to place Riley on paid administrative leave, and School Superintendent David Baker said then that school officials would work on a “mutually agreed upon severance package” because of her comments.

Several community members had raised concerns after Riley had written, “I firmly believe Black Lives Matter, but I DO NOT agree with coercive measures taken to get this point across; some of which are falsified in an attempt to prove a point.”

She also wrote that “While I want to get behind BLM, I do not think people should be made to feel they have to choose black race over human race.”

“While I understand the urgency to feel compelled to advocate for black lives, what about our fellow law enforcement?” Riley had written. “Just because I don’t walk around with a BLM sign should not mean I am a racist.”

A group of recent graduates called Riley’s message “insanely tone-deaf,” and the board, in a statement released after the June 12 vote, said Riley’s statement was contrary to its values.

“We have expectations of the leaders in our schools — that they will strive to embody education as a living, fluid concept, one that encompasses listening, learning, and teaching as equal partners … It is our responsibility to be aware of that, especially in our public statements,” the board said at the time.

Elizabeth Burrows, the chairwoman of the Mount Ascutney School Board, declined to comment on the letter from the New York-based group, saying on Wednesday, “I don’t have a reaction to it at this time.”

The decision to remove Riley — who has served as principal since 2015 and is paid $110,000 a year — previously drew the attention of Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, who said penalizing someone for “expressing their right to free speech” could be “problematic.”

The School Board last Thursday issued a statement saying it was “very aware” of the controversy that arose over its action, adding, “We want to make sure that all decisions going forward are consistent with the district’s support for leadership behavior, equality and inclusion. We now must determine how best to proceed.

“We believe it is unwise to rush into any decision regarding a plan moving forward. While the Principal is on paid administrative leave, we are working together to evaluate what is best for our students, our school and our community. Then, after careful consideration of all the information, we will make a decision regarding next steps.”

The board has a meeting with an executive session scheduled for next Wednesday, an indication the Riley case may be discussed again then.

Burrows said there has been “no change in anything” and that, “At the moment, all of the communication is taking place between the two lawyers” representing Riley and the school district.

Messages left for Riley on Wednesday were not returned.

In a statement Thursday morning, Rutland-based Bill Meub attorney confirmed that his firm “represents Tiffany Riley regarding how she has been wrongfully treated and the significant harm to her. While I understand the interest that exists in this case, at the moment, Ms. Riley has been specifically directed by the School District not to contact or communicate with people regarding her dismissal and the school district’s actions or the merits of what has occurred. We are presently engaging with the School District as directed and as required. When, and if, we are able to discuss the issues and this matter, we will.” 

In its letter, the NCAC referred to Supreme Court cases that have held that “public employees have the right to speak as citizens about matters of public concern, and that that right can be restricted only to the extent ‘necessary for their employers to operate efficiently and effectively.’ ”

“Given that the Board has not claimed, and cannot claim, that Ms. Riley’s speech renders her unable to do her job, it is obvious that the Board has erred,” the NCAC letter said.

In fact, the School Board in its June 12 statement had said it was “uniformly appalled” by Riley’s statements and suggested it would affect her ability to lead the school in the future.

“The ignorance, prejudice, and lack of judgment in these statements are utterly contrary to the values we espouse as a school board and district. However, these statements were not alone. They were followed later by a follow-up Facebook post, which acknowledged no culpability, expressed no specific contrition or empathy, and showed no humility. Because of this glaring miscomprehension of the situation, we feel unanimously that Ms. Riley’s continued role as our school leader damages the school and its students,” the School Board had written.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, NCAC Executive Director Christopher Finan said the coalition believes the school district’s mission should be broader than confronting white supremacy, and that it should also “include teaching students how to engage with ideas that they may not like, and without trying to silence them.”

“The lesson is in a democracy, free speech is the only way to try to find agreement and provide a way for us to move forward together,” he said. “What students are being taught by the (ouster) is we don’t have to respond to criticism with reasoned argument.”

Finan said that if the principal had been “openly hostile” toward the Black Lives Matter movement, it would be a “harder call” to determine whether her ouster was justified, but maintained the board could still have used such an episode as a teachable moment.

The anti-censorship coalition was founded in 1973 after a US Supreme Court decision which “narrowed First Amendment protections for sexual expression and opened the door to obscenity prosecutions,” according to its website.

Among the more than 50 participating organizations in the coalition include the American Library Association, the Aut   hors Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Among its donors are several major publishers, including Simon & Schuster and Scholastic Inc., American Booksellers for Free Expression, and the Charles Koch Foundation. Board members include author Judy Blume, some prominent media attorneys and the co-founder of the Adam & Eve mail order firm that deals in sex toys.

News staff writer John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com or 603- 727-3217.

Update

This story was updated Thursday morning, after it had gone to print, with a statement from the law firm representing Riley.




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