Gov. Scott: school board may have violated Windsor principal’s free speech rights

Windsor school principal put on leave, threatened with job loss after questioning some BLM tactics 

By Guy Page

June 15, 2020 – Gov. Phil Scott is concerned about the constitutionality of the Ascutney School Board’s decision to put Windsor School principal Tiffany Riley on leave for questioning some Black Lives Matter tactics. 

On Friday, June 12, the Ascutney School Board released a statement saying it is “uniformly appalled” by statements made on Facebook by Principal Tiffany Riley and announcing she has been put on paid leave and “will no longer lead our school.” The statement is signed by all six members: Chair Elizabeth Burrows; Vice-Chair Amy McMullen, Beth Carter, Kris Garnjost, Nancy Pedrick, and Bill Yates. Windsor School is a pre-K – grade 12 school. Chair Burrows is also one of four candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for the two-seat Windsor-1 House district. 

Riley graduated from a nearby Vermont high school and holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from Castleton University. She is a member of the Vermont Equity Practitioner’s Network. Her personal Facebook page includes photos of her next to the eternal flame at the Martin Luther King memorial in Atlanta. Georgia. 

The board statement quoted the following post by Ms. Riley: “I firmly believe that Black Lives Matter, but I DO NOT agree with the coercive measures taken to get to this point across; some of which are falsified in an attempt to prove a point. 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? What about all others who advocate for and demand equity for all? Just because I don’t walk around with a BLM sign should not mean I am a racist [sic].”

The board said the statement demonstrates “ignorance and prejudice.” Riley’s statements have made the school complicit in perpetuating White Advantage, it said: “If we are not acknowledging White Advantage and working to remove it, we are not attempting to provide our minority students an equal opportunity for education. If we are not teaching all our students that bias exists in our community and working to remove it, we are complicit in its perpetuation.

According to a June 14 VT Digger report, the controversy began when Riley refused to remove a painting of an American flag in view of the June 5 graduation ceremonies. An ongoing conflict between Riley and several families ensued. The news report quotes local residents both in favor and against the board’s action. Vermont Law School professor of constitutional law Jared Carter reportedly told VT Digger, “I think there are serious concerns when the state takes action against somebody for what is essentially political commentary and political speech in the context of what’s obviously a contemporary political issue.”

At today’s press conference, Gov. Scott expressed similar concerns. Vermont Daily asked Gov. Scott, “As the chief executive sworn to uphold the Vermont Constitution, do you think the Ascutney School Board is stifling free speech by threatening the Windsor School principal with the loss of her job for expressing skepticism about some of the BLM tactics?” 

Gov. Scott replied: “It sounds like a constitutional question that is appropriate to ask. [The governor said he is aware of the situation, and does not know if the principal has hired a lawyer.] “I do question a bit that when you have someone who is expressing their right to free speech, to be penalized for that, is problematic.” 

No known CHAZ in Vermont – Last Friday, Gov. Scott was asked by Vermont Daily “can you assure Vermonters that if protesters try to establish a police-free autonomous zone in Vermont, per Capitol Hill in Seattle, that you will stop it promptly and decisively, and if so how?” Friday both he and Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling expressed no knowledge of the no-cops-allowed “Capital Hill Autonomous Zone” [CHAZ] established by anti-police brutality protesters. The question was repeated today. 

Gov. Scott replied: “I did take a look over the weekend at [the CHAZ in] Seattle. It is bizarre in many ways. I don’t have any knowledge of any initiative in Vermont.” Anyone with knowledge of similar activity in Vermont should contact police, he said. Com. Schirling also said he is unaware of any CHAZ-type activity in Vermont. He added that “Vermonters conduct themselves in protests and demonstrations in a different and impactful way.”

For the record, Vermont Daily has not heard of any discussion about a cop-free autonomous zone in Vermont. 

Photo of Tiffany Riley at MLK Jr. burial site in Atlanta, GA, from her Facebook page