JAMS — There were plenty of emotions and clashes of opinion, all expected in a heated conversation about free speech that’s further complicated by the sensitive issue of race.
While a three-hour meeting addressing possible revisions to the school district’s event permit policy — a response to the last-minute cancellation of a benefit featuring comedian Carlos Mencia — didn’t end any definite changes, many agreed that the discussion — albeit difficult — was a necessary first step.
On Saturday, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District hosted a forum at John Adams Middle School regarding an update to its facility permit policy, soliciting input from the community about what regulations it should adopt when it concerns events on campus.
“We know that conversations today may be difficult but your input is invaluable,” Superintendent Tim Cuneo said.
It was more than two months ago that the district canceled a school benefit featuring the self-professed “Equal Opportunity Offender” at Barnum Hall just hours before it was scheduled to start. The event was organized by the Edison Language Academy PTA to raise an estimated $25,000 for instructional aides, field trips and Spanish language arts and music programs for what is considered one of the most underfunded schools in the district.
Cuneo said he pulled the plug after learning that the benefit was causing divisions in the community and out of concern for the safety of those attending the performance, hearing that several dissidents were planning on buying tickets just to disrupt the event, which could have lead to litigation against the district.
One of the most vocal opponents of the benefit was the Santa Monica-West Los Angeles Chapter of the Association of Mexican-American Educators, which threatened to picket the comedian’s performance, taking exception to the edgy jokes and racial satire being used at a district facility to raise money for an elementary school with a large minority population.
Mencia was scheduled to perform pro bono and had even agreed to do a question and answer session with the audience.
One of the proposed changes to the policy includes defining the difference between school activities and facility use by outside groups, which could cause confusion for groups like the PTA, which are legally a separate entity from the district, but hosts events that typically benefit schools.
The distinction could be made to classify the PTA and booster clubs as “affiliated groups,” allowing their rental fees and other costs to be fully waived if they choose to host events at district facilities.
The proposed policy and community input from the forum will be presented to the Board of Education during its two meetings in May.
“We want to make sure there’s balance when we put together the policy,” Cuneo said. “It’s important we’re clear about our community and what we value.”
Parents at the meeting split up into several groups where they talked about the events policy, some arguing for free speech, others proposing the district set criteria for what is appropriate content.
The forum featured a panel discussion made up of legal, educational and first amendment experts, all speaking from various perspectives. Some panelists are also parents in the district.
Michael Klein, an entertainment, real property and business transactions lawyer who also serves with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the PTA took proper steps to set up a charitable concert and has a right to complain about the cancellation of its event.
“The district did something it should not have done,” Klein said. “In our view, a mistake was made here.”
Klein, who is also a school parent, said that the district could have gotten into legal trouble by canceling the event, facing the threat of a lawsuit by both the PTA and Mencia, neither of whom have pursued action.
Daryl Goode, the president of the NAACP Santa Monica Venice branch, spoke about how a performance featuring a comedian making racially-charged jokes can lead to damaging results.
“I think the board needs to look at developing a policy that will allow clubs and PTAs to raise money, but … recognize that when you do events, you have to look at the value of people around you,” he said. “When you have a performance, it may seem benign, but if you look at other cultures, it definitely has an impact.”