Opinion » Editorial

No Star Chambers, Please

No Star Chambers, Please

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We understand that, in the new era of national emergency which has existed since the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11th, complacency has necessarily yielded to a sense of vigilance and legitimate security concerns have underscored a need for, well, caution.

We are dubious about some of the abridgments proposed by Attorney General Ashcroft and others on liberty and the rights of the accused, however, and we are certainly unwilling to see a full-fledged revival of McCarthyism, now a half-century in its grave, with all its attendant specters of suspiciousness, innuendo, and ruination by rumor.

Still less prepared are we to put up with such tactics in isolated corners of local government and society which -- how to say it? -- are not on the front line of national survival.

If there has ever been a place where open covenants and free speech have been more fully encouraged (sometimes to an extreme) than the Memphis City Schools board, we are unaware of what it might be. For better and for worse, matters are vented in that arena more freely than and at greater prolixity than in your average all-night karaoke lounge.

Imagine our astonishment, then, at the behavior at Monday night's board meeting by first-term member Wanda Halbert, a hard-working commissioner whose intensive campaigning style should have prepared us for the thoroughness of her approach to most matters before the board.

Thoroughness is one thing, however, and busybodiness is another. In suggesting Monday night that there were dark and suspect matters underway in the school system's transportation department, Halbert left us and her fellow board members to fear the worst. Unfortunately, she was not prepared to be forthcoming about the nature of her concerns, other than to suggest that there had been serious improprieties indeed.

Nor, when she was pressed by Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson and others, did Halbert prove willing to divulge the source of her anxiety to Watson himself or to the media or to law-enforcement agencies if the offenses she hinted at were of so grave a nature.

What she said she wanted was a board staff conference to deal with her unidentified "concerns."

School board attorney Percy Harvey, in what we will excuse as an over-conscientious effort to be principled, expressed his belief that Halbert could not be compelled to provide the information she says she holds to Watson or to her colleagues or to law-enforcement personnel.

So we are left with Halbert's so far undocumented imputations of some unspecified awful behavior but without a single hint as to what this might be. Excuse us, but we've read enough history to be reminded of those carefully hoarded (but never revealed) lists of "59" or "205" card-carrying Communists that were the stock-in-trade of congressional McCarthyism.

Such "lists" usually proved chimerical, to say the least. We do not fault Commissioner Halbert's sincerity, but we encourage her -- as the superintendent and her colleagues already have -- to honor due process if she thinks something is wrong in the school system.

It may be that she is onto something. If so, it will stand up to normal procedures and established forms of scrutiny. It should not become the rationale for an era of unfounded allegations and star-chamber proceedings. As Superintendent Watson said, "This must come to a stop."

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