From time to time, I run across behavior in my chosen field–education–that is embarrassing.  It makes me ashamed to be an educator for I know that any reasonable person hearing of it must think teachers are all idiots.  There is more than enough unthinking, ill-informed criticism of teachers these days.  While this story is about a school board and apparently, its hired administrators, we all tend to be painted with the same broad brush.

Lion

The Buffalo News.com has the story:  

Hamburg Educational Ethics, an Internet blog, talks of lofty issues like the value of state assessments and teacher evaluations.

It also depicts the superintendent of Hamburg Central Schools as Pinocchio, one School Board member as a cheerleader, one as a crying baby and another as Rosie the Riveter, and talks about the “Bored” of Education with sarcastic, caustic, opinionated, satirical, biting and humorous prose.

Now some in the district want to know who is behind the blog, which is operated anonymously and posts some anonymous comments.

The district has obtained a subpoena for Google to find out the identities of the person who runs the blog, ‘Concerned Hamburger,’ and two people who have posted comments on it, ‘Klozman’ and ‘Super.’

To recap, the Hamburg Central School District (New York State)  Superintendent and school board is trying to force Google to provide the names of three local bloggers that have had the gall, the temerity, the, the, the…civic-mindedness to actually criticize them and their actions.  How dare these, these, citizens do something so, so, so, constitutionally protected?  How dare they criticize local politicians!  Don’t they know they have every right to do just that?  The attorney the bloggers hired explains:

It’s just wrong. It’s strong-armed, storm trooper type of tactics,’ said Buffalo attorney Joseph M. Finnerty, who has filed a motion to quash the subpoena. He also called it an ‘assault on the First Amendment.

It also seems that at least one of the bloggers is already known to the board–because he has identified himself:

The subpoena came to light when one of the posters, Super, identified himself and asked board members for an apology at Tuesday’s budget hearing. Robert Johnstun often attends School Board meetings and speaks out on various school issues, including the rights of special-needs children. He also posts to the blog and has used his own name in some of his postings.

‘None of them apologized,’ he said. ‘None of them even offered a reason why I was being brought into the lawsuit,’ Johnstun said.

But this situation seems even more bizarre than   one might suppose.  One of the school board members is, in essence, being sued by the rest of the school board, and the subpoena is intertwined with another matter the obviously easily-insulted members of the board are pursuing:

The subpoena to Google is part of the school district’s lawsuit against Sally Stephenson; her daughter Lyndsey Stephenson; and teacher Martha Kavanaugh. The district claims they secretly taped an executive session on Sept. 21, 2010, and is seeking damages from them. The women deny the charge. Since the lawsuit was filed in June 2012, Sally Stephenson has taken a seat on the School Board.

Johnstun noted:

I am essentially paying my property taxes so the school can serve a subpoena for a lawsuit I have nothing to do with just to silence me,’ he said.

His lawyer accused school district leaders of being ‘thin-skinned autocrats lavishly spending other people’s money to try and silence their critics.’

The school district’s attorney issued an email to Concerned Hamburger in January 2011, demanding that he or she ‘cease and desist’ from administering the blog, immediately remove the contents from it, and said information on the blog is defamatory. He called the anonymous postings “cowardly” and said once the names of Concerned Hamburger and other users are confirmed, they would be served with legal papers.

Finnerty notes that the blogger and two posters were not included in the lawsuit filed against the three women. Concerned Hamburger has denied taping the meeting and said he did not know who did, Finnerty said. ‘This blogger has an absolute right to publish speech anonymously,’ Finnerty said. ‘Sometimes, the only way you can safely speak truth to power is anonymously, because otherwise power tries to crush you.

At the Hamburg Education Ethics Blog, “Concerned Hamburger” (love that pseudonym) wrote on May 08, 2013: 

An email came in today from “Super”- a super guy who stands up for what is right against a school district that doesn’t seem to care too much about kids

Dear Readers….

Recently Concerned Hamburger received an email notification from Google indicating that the Hamburg School District, through their attorney Dick Sullivan of Harris Beach~ a commercial real estate attorney moonlighting in education and constitutional law~issued a subpoena to Google demanding the identities of Concerned Hamburger, Super and Klozman.  Immediately, Concerned, Super and Klozman, remaining anonymous,  hired a constitutional attorney to quash the subpoena.  You see readers~ we have the right in this country to voice our opinions and state the facts as we see them.  For almost three years and approximately 300K page hits, Concerned Hamburger has been operating as a citizen journalist reporting on the antics of the public faces of the Hamburg School District. Concerned is dedicated to reporting, and will continue to write on the school district despite their efforts to silence me and others.  It has been reported to Concerned Hamburger by many sources, that Dr. Joan Calkins has a vindictive and demonic alter ego.  Joan’s “other self ” has reported thoughout the Hamburg Community that she will unmask Concerned Hamburger, and she will cause financial harm to the victims of frivolous and baseless lawsuits she and Steve concocted.  Fortunately, turn around is fair play, and it seems that the plans of the District, the Bored of Education, Mr. Abramovitch and others will have unintended consequence never deemed fathomable on the onset of their witch hunt.

Frankly, if the behavior of the the Bored of Education and Mr. Achramovitch was not so egregiously corrupt, there would be no material to report.  Instead, you the reader~of which there are many~ have been give factual, and sometimes humorous, accounts of the insidious behavior.

Concerned Hamburger has already spent thousands of dollars attempting to protect their rights, and it is likely the the district has spent tens of thousands on this witch hunt.   This latest stunt by Steve and Joan et. al. should shock the conscience of any reader.  Taxpayer dollars intended to go to children to support a fair and balanced education in accordance with NYS Constitutional Law instead is being used to strip  Federal and State Constitutional rights from private citizens- who are taxpayers. Steven Achramovitch ought to be fired immediately, and charges should be filed against each and every board member individually and collectively. A groundswell of anti-Joan and Steve support it growing across this community, and it appears this is only the beginning.

I’m not sufficiently informed about this community, its politics and its school board to render definitive opinions about what is going on in this case.  However, there are a number of general principals that do not change anywhere in the nation.

School board members are elected officials.  As such, it is very difficult–legally speaking–to defame them, particularly if commentary is directed at their official acts, the things they say and do in the furtherance of their public office.  Such politicians know it’s virtually impossible for them to sue citizens for criticizing them, no matter how cruel, hurtful and unfair that criticism might be.  Therefore, any lawsuit they might file will tend to be a matter of using more or less unlimited public monies (compared to the resources of a few local bloggers) to harm citizens for daring to hurt their feelings, even if their allegations are entirely true.  They tend to be attempts to punish uppity “little people” rather than principled actions in the public interest.

Intelligent, rational elected officials know they are going to be criticized–it goes with the job they begged the public to give them–and are generally sufficiently mature to simply take it and keep their mouths shut.  They tend to be secure in the knowledge that their actions are above board, honest and entirely defensible–unless, of course, they’re not.

Intelligent, rational elected officials know that citizens have a virtually unlimited right to free speech, and that any attempt to infringe on that right will bring a great deal of unwanted attention to them and their easily bruised feelings.  Most are smart enough to know they don’t want the kind of attention their actions will bring.

Generally speaking, school boards that have the time, money and inclination to do this sort of thing, tend to be very bad indeed at actually looking out for the welfare of the school children entrusted to them by the public.

That this particular school board has chosen to spend what could easily amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to pursue what appears to be a personal, political vendetta appears to be nothing other than a gross misuse of public funds and a betrayal of public trust.  This is the thuggish “Chicago way” transplanted to New York.  The Obama Administration would be proud.

I’ll continue to follow this story as it develops.  I recommend you take a moment to visit the Hamburg Educational Ethics Blog, and perhaps to visit the Hamburg Central School District Website where you might wish to send an e-mail to Superintendent Steven Achramovitch, politely (as I know you will) expressing your concern, and politely informing Mr. Achramovitch (sachramovitch@hamburgschools.org) that his actions, and those of the school board, are being watched with concern and interest across this great nation.