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EDITORIAL: First Amendment 2.0

Lansdowne resident Brian Davison has filed multiple lawsuits against Loudoun County officials for what he views as a suppression of free speech.
Be careful before you invite Brian Davison to become a Facebook friend. You shouldn’t expect warm and fuzzy posts from a tenacious rabble-rouser who wages personal campaigns for free speech, accountability and freedom of information.

Over the last two years, Davison has filed three separate civil rights lawsuits against the Loudoun Board of Supervisors and Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D), Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman (R) and the Loudoun County School Board. They have at times blocked him from their Facebook pages, deleted critical comments he posted and attempted to ostracize him. One needs only to read Davison’s online comments to understand why he gets under their skin.

Davison has sought public access to the school system’s student growth percentile (SGP) scores. He’s accused Plowman’s office of refusing to investigate perjury by school officials. He’s offended Randall with comments about corruption, lack of accountability and conflicts of interest that extend to the families of public officials, some of whom work for county government or the school system. And, yes, Davison pokes at the Times-Mirror for what he sees as a failure to report rigorously on alleged corruption and conflicts by elected officials.

To his supporters, many of whom are members of the anything-goes club of anonymous online commenting, Davison is a valiant campaigner for truth. To his critics, he’s a self-righteous insulter. Before last week, few would have characterized him as a patriot. Now he’s mentioned in the same sentence with James Madison, the Virginian who wrote the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights.

The Times-Mirror has consistently campaigned for open government and freedom of information in a county that frequently conducts business behind closed doors and uses Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act to block disclosure of information rather than provide access to it. We’re also wary of anonymous, online comments that can distort stories with bias, prejudice, insults and inaccuracies. We acknowledge that we’re not always comfortable with the tone of anonymous discussion on LoudounTimes.com, but we regard it as important forum for readers to express their views on stories and discuss them with fellow citizens. When we err, we're more comfortable erring on the side of freedom of expression rather than censorship.

These are uncomfortable times. First Amendment lawsuits now raise the legal argument in which Twitter users claim their constitutional rights have been violated because President Donald Trump – the commander-in-tweet – blocks them from his personal Twitter handle. The argument about social media rights rages in a day and age when politicians, from the president on down, are using their private accounts to discuss public affairs or socialize their positions with constituents.

Davison’s cases may provide a legal precedent. A federal judge ruled Chairwoman Randall violated Davison's First Amendment rights because she briefly banned him from her personal Facebook account.

"The suppression of critical commentary regarding elected officials is the quintessential form of viewpoint discrimination against which the First Amendment guards," U.S. District Judge James Cacheris wrote in the ruling on Davison’s suit.

The judge didn't issue punishment against Randall since her Facebook ban only lasted about 10 hours. That said, the judge noted Randall committed "a cardinal sin under the First Amendment" by barring the constituent who posted about county corruption. What's more, the judge pointed out from the first sentence of the ruling that "this case raises important questions about the constitutional limitations applicable to social media accounts maintained by elected officials."

Somehow that decision was interpreted by the county as a victory for the county’s elected officials. “The status of social media is a novel question in the law,” huffed County Attorney Leo P. Rogers as if Facebook was a passing fad.

Meantime, Randall insists she’s a defender of the First Amendment and cites legal confusion. In earnest calls to the Times-Mirror she defended her takedown of Davison as an appropriate response to offensive comments pertaining to family members of public officials. Later, in reaction to the ruling in the School Board case, she acknowledged confusion:

“ … while I blocked the plaintiff overnight for approximately eight hours because he made inappropriate comments, not about the elected official but about the members of their families, and another court finds a First Amendment infraction. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

It all makes perfect sense to Davison, who argues that Loudoun’s elected leaders will go to any lengths -- and at any cost -- to defend arcane rules that enable them to govern behind closed doors, provide cover for conflicts of interest and shut down dissent.

Despite our distaste for bad behavior, online or off, we are inclined to agree.

There is a simple resolution to confusion over public participation in government: Open access to all meetings and information that impacts the welfare of citizens and provides accountability for public decisions.

True leaders have nothing to hide. They lead us out of the dark and into the sun even if it occasionally causes sunburn. Whether in Madison’s time or Davison’s or Davison's children's, open government, free speech and the First Amendment must stand as the foundations of American democracy and represent the values of our American experience.

You may not like Brian Davison or the democratizing platform of social media that he uses, but how one feels about either is wholly irrelevant. Our leaders should not worry about whether Davison is a pain. They should consider whether he is right.


Jim - having many kids in the schools over many years, I support your concern about teachers.  We have had good ones and bad ones.  We have experienced good administrators and bad administrators.  Your premise that Teachers and Families should look at Brian as a champion for our children is simply not in line with reality. Yes, his quest against censorship is worthy but you also posted that he is working for educators, families and students.  Having observed him for several years, I find this position at odds with his behavior.

Dante_Callme, you raise an important issue, one I will address, albeit reluctantly.

I chose to give my take on Brian’s character here only because so many seek to impugn it, using that assessment publicly to support an agenda by silencing him through deleting comments or banning him from his children’s school (Google how school “No-Tresspass” orders are misused across the country for some sad reading). I offer another perspective based both on my handful of conversations with him and the questions he raises.

But you know what? What I think of his character doesn’t matter. Neither should yours. It’s the ideas that count, and what we should be doing is debating those ideas and concerns he raises.

I used to be quite active on these pages (and other outlets) doing just that, not just to promote my views, but to foster debate about issues that didn’t always invite close reading. But I grew weary of the constant ad hominen attacks, accusing me of lying and of having less than a pure heart. It is disheartening to see how easily people resort to character attacks when opinions don’t fit nicely into their own world views.

[thus my reluctance here]

As to ideas, as an example, let’s look at one you just highlighted: teacher efficacy. Brian may truly despise teachers as a class and as individuals, but I don’t really care since I can debate his criticisms of the status quo focusing only on the information he puts out there (which, I must say has never included personal or individual attacks on a teacher). Here’s the thing: I don’t have to go too far to find an immense body of academic research that supports the idea that school employees in general (and teachers specifically) are indeed “over paid and ineffective.” In fact, not only am I intimately familiar with it (it is my career and a passion), but I regularly converse with the researchers behind much of the work.

I don’t have to take such significant criticism personally, nor perceive it as an attack on me or my colleagues. Instead I assess its validity and utility to improving the system. Similarly, I can also quickly access research that argues the opposite, and assess its validity and utility. As well as studies that look at the same issues from a variety of angles.

Brian’s push for obtaining more data on teacher performance outcomes resonates with me for a number of reasons. I spent a significant amount of my life designing and administering compensation and employee development/performance systems, and I despair over the lack of authentic employee development within LCPS (read that as “complete lack”). The fact that over 98% of teachers are rated as satisfactory and, in a three-year stretch, the school board reported that only nine teachers had been discharged for performance reasons seem to defy statistical reality.

Three years ago I received my “performance appraisal,” which was totally unhelpful to me since it documented my ability to walk on water. I asked the administrator what the purpose of a performance appraisal is and the response was “To make sure the right boxes are checked.”

The compensation professional in me cringed, but I can find little wrong with her answer given the structure she works in. In most jobs, if an employee is not doing well, the performance appraisal acts as a conduit and guide to connecting the manager and employee with development tools designed to support the employee. In our schools, however, since those development tools are non-existent, my administrator doesn’t have the opportunity to help me improve. Instead, she is limited to either rating me deficient (and likely consistently so) and work for my discharge or, most likely, my resignation, or keep me in the proficient range to minimize any drain on limited resources; the choice becomes binary, the two options having nothing to do with employee development and ultimately student achievement.

She really has little more to worry about than checking the right boxes.

By pointing this out—which means there are more “ineffective” employees than there should be—I am not “attacking” teachers or administrators but highlighting a problem in the system that needs to be solved.

Some may not agree with my assessment that authentic employee development is missing at LCPS and, therefore, the administrator’s choice is not just binary. That’s good. I welcome the debate because it will increase my knowledge and develop my perspective further. And it may result in improvement. But don’t accuse me of being anti-teacher. It doesn’t really matter if I am if we stick to the ideas.

Just because a fact is disagreeable doesn’t mean the person focusing on it is disagreeable or has nefarious motives. Once I observed areas of concern from within, I did my research and found extensive literature focused on the same thing, highlighting public education’s pervasive lack of training options and its extreme reluctance to critique peers and subordinates over teaching methods and performance.

But you know what? I fully understand the reaction from people I work with who perceive critiques of performance as attacks and pushes to “fire the deadwood,” because they know they live in a binary world where there’s no middle ground between employment and unemployment.

But that doesn’t make the situation a good one. And it doesn’t make critics like me and Brian bad guys. Dismissing our concerns as those of a disgruntled employee or an obsessive parent may push us into the immediate background, but it doesn’t make the research of respected scholars like Eric Hanushek, Victor Lavy, Steve Rivkin, Linda Darling-Hammond, Marguerite Rosa, and Dale Ballou go away.

This is a much needed area of improvement that Brian’s efforts have focused on. I’d like to think that my critiques of how my employer handles measuring and directing performance outcomes is not an attack but an effort to improve employee efforts and job enjoyment — as well as student learning.

Dante_Callme, if I say the system is preventing teachers from being better teachers, am I attacking teachers as being ineffective or am I looking for a way to support them and their students? I’m willing to talk ideas with you anytime.

Jim.  Brian might champion free speak but he absolutely does not champion teachers.  He continues to claim they are over paid and ineffective.  He calls SB members corrupt simply for having a spouse in the school system.  Instead of looking for real solutions to actual problems like productivity, technology and communication issue in the system, he spends his time publically attacking individual teachers, yourself included.  With all that is not great within LCPS, he has yet to focus on improvements, only attacks

I wish Jim Dunning’s methods worked. I tried to discuss the issues with LCSB and the BOS professionally. But just like I tell my kids to seek an arbitrator (me) when they have a disagreement, the only recourse Loudoun citizens have when facing corrupt officials is the legal system.

We need more discussions from knowledgeable people in education like Dunning and Knoblach (ran for school board). We don’t agree on all policies and everyone should be prepared to lose on some policy debates. But this push by LCSB and Supt Williams to dictate policy from on high, in secrecy and without any public discussion, is not only not democratic but results in subpar policy. If the people want effective govt, you need to vote the current pols out of office.

Loudoun county residents—and especially LCPS staff, students, and parents of students—are fortunate to have Brian Davison working for them with what seems to be unbounded energy — and results. To believe that bureaucratic government organizations would be anything but protective and defensive (even proactively so) about its goals and actions would fly in the face of history and huge bodies of research and media reporting.

Why should Loudoun County Schools be immune?

It’s not even a matter of evil people or incompetent people in the system, but a function of the system itself. Often it just comes down to “I’m the expert and you’re not and I don’t have time to explain what I’m doing.” Or this hubris of bureaucracy molding even the best-intentioned public servant when the press of the job leads to process and pragmatic shortcuts.

To the point where decision makers choose to skip steps and accept “diluted” information from others when voting on issues great and small.

People like Brian Davison keep not so much the people honest, but the system honest.

Just a few years back, LCPS moved to reorganize a program for more than 7,000 at-risk students and their families, affecting every school and hundreds of employees. Understandably, those employees—dedicated educators—wanted to know where the new “Plan” was going and its research foundations. For many months those educators were assured by Central Office Staff and school board members “The Plan” would be revealed—along with its scientific underpinnings—all in good time.

Unfortunately, the Plan wasn’t presented to teachers or parents or students in “good time.” It began to appear that there might not be documentation of The Plan.

Ultimately, I ended up sitting in the superintendent’s office, sitting across from my host, an assistant superintendent, a supervisor, and a school board member. The net of the meeting was the superintendent’s admission that documentation of The Plan could not be produced after all those months of promises because it simply did not exist. But that was okay, I was assured, because we should put the past behind us and move on. I recall that this was justified because it was clear from our discussion that we were all “in it for the children.”

It would be seem strange that such significant changes to a program for so many students would be made without any written analyses and justification. Especially since a number of the school board members who voted for it all claimed to have seen the non-existent documentation. But, as it turned out, the school board member sitting across from me, the one who moved to make the changes based on recommendations of Staff, told me she wasn’t the “education expert” and must depend on “diluted information” from Staff when voting. (The “Staff”—the assistant superintendent and her supervisor—are no longer in those positions.)

Am I surprised that this is how our billion dollar bureaucracy works? Nope. Do I agree with this culture? Nope, but it’s clear that I am in the minority because most people only have time to care about attendance zones and whether their kids have to walk far to school — not whether thousands of at-risk children are learning effectively or whether staff are truly being developed or why financial resources favor mostly White schools over minority schools. Ignorance is often blissful, and who really wants to see how the sausage is made?

And this is no surprise. These challenges are hard. They are complicated and complex. They take time to study and assess and find solutions for. That’s why parents focus on bus stops and school board members often settle for “diluted” information.

But that doesn’t mean that the complicated stuff isn’t important — and that’s why we’re lucky to have Brian Davison championing our children, teachers, and our tax dollars. I don’t always agree with Brian’s conclusions on education policy and implementation, and I more than once took him to task for his initial online and IRL in-your-face communication style, but I always agreed with his goals of transparency and governmental ethics.

On reflection, I must admit that my “more flies with honey” approach has never garnered the success in shedding sunlight on what our elected and appointed representatives do that Brian’s frequently more adversarial methods have accomplished.

Where school board members eschew “expertise” in education, Brian has done the opposite, becoming more informed than anyone I know.

As I said, I haven’t always agreed with his methods, but that’s a matter of taste and strategy — I have, however, never had reason to question Brian’s ethics, passion for truth, or devotion to improving learning achievement in Loudoun.

To paraphrase the Times-Mirror, we should not worry about whether Davison is a pain, we should consider whether he is right.

courtroom overload, I love how you suggest that I love “adulation” as a way to disparage me.  I would have no need to bring these issues to the forefront if the ACLU or other public advocacy groups were doing their jobs.  We have countless lawyers in Loudoun, any of whom could have brought these cases (see Minchew on the Land Use Committee FOIA violation) but none would lift a finger.  I simply stepped up because nobody else would.

I have strong cases against other local politicians for banning me on Twitter but seeing as some groups have finally decided to press that issue (vs Trump), I have no need to file.  If your premise is true, I should be racing to be “first”, right?

With regard to the court cases, I am much more interested in the technical issues that are left unresolved.  The newspapers can’t and won’t cover these because nobody cares about them (and they are hard to explain).  But I will press on in obscurity to ensure the proper groundwork is laid for the next person who is censored or retaliated against by our corrupt politicians.  Only somebody with little intellectual curiosity would attack me for seeking personal fame when I use a screen name and put in endless hours to resolve obscure issues that will help but those in a similar situation.

As to the county corruption, the whole point is to make a scene.  The corrupt politicians don’t come out and announce “we are crooked” (when the special prosecutor ruled LCSB was breaking the law, the members never explained why they started disclosing conflicts before votes, now did they?).  It’s not only important that folks know the corrupt politicians are now following the law, but that they were intentionally violating it until threatened with criminal or monetary sanctions by courts or law enforcement.  The reason why the social media censorship is important is because Randall, Hornberger, Rose and crew tried to shut down discussion of their corruption.  I’ve told every journalist to not make the story about me.  The story is the corrupt politicians.  I don’t talk to Loudoun Now because they refuse to cover Plowman’s corruption or even that case.  But guess what.  You can’t file a lawsuit anonymously, now can you.  If I didn’t raise a ruckus, would the public have become aware of so many violations by our officials as well as the acquiescence by those officials who claim they were “not involved”. 

This entire gov’t (except for the Loudoun Sheriff) is corrupt and unethical.  Those are just the facts.

SGT now you are the one who is wrong. Let them go to court.  That’s kind of what sets America apart. What also sets it apart is that the citizens have a right and duty to bring to the light of day issues and wrong doing of elected officials. You however are obsessed and you know that. Go spend that pent up anger on our traffic problems. Then, and only then, will you get the actual support and adulation you desire. For now you have become my amusement.

courtroom overload, you are just upset that you can’t keep all these cases about corrupt Loudoun officials in a Loudoun courtroom where you have judges who will protect those officials regardless of what the law is. 

And you might be a little upset that a “1983 civil rights consultant” didn’t have a clue what the law was regarding 1983 civil rights suits.

Courtroom overload, let’s go over this slowly.  Equity said she doesn’t understand why “inappropriate comments about family members of elected officials” are considered “sunlight”.  Equity accepted the comments were “inappropriate” and about “family members” despite none of that being true.

I do not sue at the drop of a hat or else Rdj would be bankrupt by now.  I pitied him so I didn’t sue him.  But I did sue an anonymous user who defamed me and my family on Facebook.  The anonymous defamation was deleted and ended without me even having to press for her identity.  The same will happen to Randall, Equity and anyone else if they continue to defame me by implying I libeled/insulted family members of corrupt Loudoun officials.  I have a standing $500 offer for defamation suits because I don’t defame.  Are Randall and Equity so confident as they intentionally twist words and make false statements?

She just stated she is trying to figure out the comments. Never stated what. You really don’t like being challenged. The first thing you do is threaten to sue vice trying to explain. Nice warning in the first line. Chest thumping at its best. Just because people don’t like you or your methods doesn’t allow you to threaten people but then again you don’t like anyone else’s methods and sue at the drop of a hat. SMH.

“When we err, we’re more comfortable erring on the side of freedom of expression rather than censorship.”

Give me a friggin’ break.  You censor what you don’t like with impunity.  Clearly, LTM does not err on the side of freedom of expression.

Good for Brian.  Glad the little guys won one.

Equity, you need to be extremely careful.  There were no “inappropriate” comments.  The comments asked why multiple school board members were not complying with the ethical laws (conflict of interest laws) for disclosure because they voted on raises while their spouses were employed by LCPS.  That is in now way inappropriate.

If you or Randall continue to imply there were derogatory comments about family members, you will face a defamation suit.  Try me.

still trying to figure out how inappropriate comments about family members of elected officials are considered “sunlight”

Phyliss Randall blocked comment at the June 29th Transportation Summit saying we as in the public can speak any time but she wanted to here from the alphabet soup organizations that support a bridge. They as far as I know can speak anytime the public is able to and is this the first time public input was not allowed at a public meeting. Did she violate residents first amendment rights? Is this a pattern or did she railroad the transportation vote. View the video and see for yourself!

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