Governing Board 'Gag Order'

April 21, 2005

For the last three years, Thomas A. Hamilton has increasingly become a minority of one on the seven-member Board of Trustees of  St. Clair County Community College, regularly challenging policies adopted by the two-year institution's president and questioning whether the board is fulfilling its obligations to oversee and assess her performance.

So when the board, in a new code of ethics it adopted last November, barred its members from talking to "students, faculty or employees without first notifying the college president," or from participating "in any meeting outside of a legal assembly of the board in which matters of board substance are discussed," he and others saw the policy as aimed squarely at shutting him up.

"There's little doubt in anyone's mind that this was directed to muzzle Tom and to allow the board to fully become the rubber stamp that it has turned into," said John Lusk, who is in his 18th year as a professor of English and comparative literature. 

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Hamilton's behalf, asking a federal judge to invalidate a policy that it says violates the rights of Hamilton -- and, conceivably, other trustees -- to free speech and free association. (On Wednesday, faculty members at St. Clair filed their own federal lawsuit challenging the trustees' policy, which they say will limit their ability to be well-represented by the board.)

"Publicly elected officials have an inherent responsibility to the voters who elect them," said Hamilton, who like other trustees in Michigan are elected to their seats (and he has held his on the St. Clair board for 34 years). "The purpose of this lawsuit is so that I can continue to honor that responsibility, not avoid it."

Hamilton said he could not discuss the case further because of the pending litigation. And neither Norman D. Beauchamp, chairman of the St. Clair board, President Rose Bellanca, nor a college spokeswoman returned telephone calls or e-mail messages Wednesday seeking comment on the lawsuit or on the creation of the board's ethics policy. So sorting out exactly how the situation devolved to this point is therefore a little tricky.

What's clear, though, is that Hamilton has been increasingly marginalized on the St. Clair board ever since he began challenging a series of decisions by Bellanca and the board over hiring policies, spending practices, use of executive session in board meetings, and evaluations of the president. Board members have accused him of trying to dominate its meetings, and 6 to 1 votes have become the norm.

Last year, Hamilton filed a lawsuit against a friend of Bellanca's who visited his home and, he said, urged him to treat the president with more respect. A judge dismissed the lawsuit in March 2004.
In November, the board adopted its new "Code of Ethics and Responsibilities for Board Members of St. Clair County Community College" by a -- yes -- 5 to 1 vote (one member was absent). Some of the language reads much like other board policies, noting that the board should "concern itself primarily with broad questions of policy rather than with administrative details," for instance. 

But the requirements laid out by the board include:

  • "Engage in positive public relations for the college."
  • "Avoid dominating board meetings by presenting prolonged or counterproductive points of view."
  • "Do not solicit or encourage faculty, student or employee concerns, whether by telephone,  Internet (e-mail), or any other verbal or written communication unless previously authorized by the board."
  • "Do not participate in any meeting outside of a legal assembly of the board in which matters of board substance are discussed."
  • "Do not visit the campus in order to talk with students, faculty or employees without first notifying the college president."

The last two items particularly troubled critics. They wondered why board members should have to seek permission from an employee they oversee -- the president -- to talk to faculty members, students and other constituents. And Hamilton's lawyers said that it is impossible for him to know when meetings with community members might touch on "matters of board substance," and that rather than risk violating the policy, Hamilton has ceased the regular meetings he had with local retirees and other groups to talk about what's happening at the college.

Prior to the adoption of the Code of Ethics in November 2004, Mr. Hamilton has been open and accessible to members of the college community as a trustee, including a retirees’ group at which he frequently spoke about college affairs.

"The gag order on Mr. Hamilton and other board members has a chilling effect on both free speech and association," said Andrew Nickelhoff, a local lawyer who is working with the ACLU on the lawsuit. "A community college should be a place where ideas are freely exchanged, not rigidly controlled by restrictive rules."

Lusk, the English faculty member, said he was struck by the differences between St. Clair's new trustee code and a model code suggested by the Association of Community College Trustees. The national group's code, he said, is "very positive, very upbeat," encouraging board members to work with their colleagues "in a spirit of harmony and cooperation in spite of differences of opinion that arise during vigorous debates of points of issue," and inviting "active cooperation by citizens, organizations, and the media of communication" to help develop policy.

"The contrast," said Lusk, "couldn't be starker."

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