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Press conference raises questions

November 21, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY - A candidate's press conference outside a public school last month has raised questions of free speech, state law and who said what during a phone call.

A few days before holding an Oct. 24 press conference at Pangborn Elementary School, Republican Paul Muldowney called Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan to ask about using an overcrowded school for a campaign message.

Morgan said Monday she thought Muldowney wanted to take pictures; she asked him to check with the principal.

"We don't allow political candidates to hold press conferences at schools," she said.

However, Muldowney - who lost to Democratic incumbent John P. Donoghue in the Nov. 7 election - said he might not have used the words "press conference," but his intent was clear. He said Morgan has "convenient amnesia."

At his press conference, Muldowney accused Donoghue of voting for a lavish statehouse annex instead of school construction, even though the money was in separate funds.

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School system spokeswoman Carol Mowen said the system didn't realize Muldowney was holding a press conference until a few hours before, and he should have been asked to set up by the road or a public sidewalk.

In an Oct. 30 letter, school board president Edward Forrest apologized to Donoghue from the board. "[I]n a time of heightened awareness for security, actions such as those by Mr. Muldowney are ill advised, potentially disruptive to student learning, and dangerous," the letter says.

He said Monday that the system must not appear to endorse candidates.

His letter says the board "does not permit political campaigning on school property." However, that refers to school employees, Mowen said.

Maryland law says, "Each county board may permit a partisan political organization that has polled 10 percent or more of the entire vote cast in this State in the last general election to use public school facilities for programs and meetings that relate to a political campaign for nomination or election of a candidate for public office."

Republican Del. Christopher B. Shank - who held a campaign press conference outside Pangborn in 1998, under a previous superintendent - said political speech that doesn't disrupt school activities is protected, so backlash against Muldowney is "much ado about nothing."

However, Maryland Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe said the word "may" lets local school boards choose standards.

School systems have latitude in deciding who may use facilities, if standards are consistent, said Tom Hutton, a staff attorney for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

Donoghue, who forwarded Forrest's letter to The Herald-Mail last week, said permission, not free speech, is the issue.

Washington County will review and possibly update its policy on how schools may be used, Forrest said.

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