Holiday backers decry e-mail halt

Citing technological concerns, the School Board temporarily blocks a flood of e-mails from a group opposing changes to the school calendar.

Published November 4, 2005

TAMPA - The controversy over Hillsborough County school holidays grew Thursday, with school officials being criticized for temporarily blocking 108 e-mails from a conservative advocacy group.

Supporters of the group, the Florida Family Association, began sending e-mails Wednesday afternoon to School Board members and superintendent MaryEllen Elia. Most were prewritten form letters asking the board to reconsider its decision to stop coordinating student vacation days with religious holidays.

"Please do not erase America's religious traditions from the school calendar," the e-mails read.

About 60 of the e-mails made it to board members before technology workers noticed them arriving about every 30 seconds from the same computer server, indiachildren.org.

District spokesman Stephen Hegarty said information technology chief Jack Davis okayed the block without reading the e-mails, fearing they would "gum up the system" or pass along a computer virus.

Florida Family Association executive director David Caton called the district's block ludicrous and illegal.

"It's an outright violation of our First Amendment rights," said Caton. "We have sent tens of thousands of e-mails over the last couple of years to the president of the United States and U.S. senators. Mayor Pam Iorio just got 500 to 600 this last week.

"We have never been blocked."

Hegarty said the block was an effort to protect school district computers. Once administrators reviewed the e-mails and determined the system could handle them, the block was turned off. That happened at 8:30 a.m. Thursday.

But Caton said he sent an e-mail that was rejected hours after the district said the block was lifted. He said the association is consulting with attorneys.

School Board attorney Tom Gonzalez said blocking e-mail correspondence does not violate the First Amendment, but said doing so seems to be "inconsistent with a representative government."

The issue also made its way to city leaders Thursday, one day after the Hillsborough County Commission voted to ask the School Board to reconsider its new calendar next week.

That calendar, which goes into effect next school year, substitutes three secular vacation days for three Christian or Jewish holidays. The calendar is similar to the one used by the Pinellas County school district and Hillsborough County government.

After some discussion, the Tampa City Council voted 4-2 against a proposal by member Shawn Harrison to ask the board to reconsider.

"I would like us to take a stand," said Harrison, who was supported by Kevin White. "I'm personally offended. This is a part of our heritage as a nation. What we saw last week was political correctness run amok."

Several council members disagreed, saying they should not interfere with the decision of another elected body.

"It's not up to us to tell the School Board what to do," said council member Mary Alvarez, a Catholic. "I would be offended if they came to us and told us what to do."

Only a handful of Muslims and Christians spoke against the calendar change before the School Board voted last week. But after County Commissioner Brian Blair denounced the decision on the Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, the issue has drawn widespread attention.

More than 1,000 e-mails have been sent to school officials from across the nation, including hundreds from the Florida Family Association.

School Board member Jennifer Faliero, the only dissenting vote on the calendar, said she received 374 new messages Thursday morning.

"This is something that hurt deep," she said. "I don't think people are going to forget this."

Melanie Ave can be reached at 813 226-3400 or melanie@sptimes.com