After Harry Pollak heard his local superintendent defend controversial policies at the school board’s public meeting, Pollak decided to sign up to speak during the next meeting.

When his turn came, Pollak explained that he intended to address the superintendent’s previous statements. But the board chair cut him off.

The chair claimed that the board’s rule against discussing “personnel matters” prohibited Pollak from mentioning the superintendent for any reason at all. That rule ordinarily requires individuals to discuss confidential personnel issues in private. But when Pollak started speaking, the chair used it to stop him from criticizing the superintendent’s public statements. She ordered Pollak to stop speaking and asked for a recess. The board then called the police to escort Pollak out of the building.

Pollak sued the school board for violating his constitutional rights. The First Amendment prohibits government agencies from shielding public officials from criticism during meetings open for public comment. Pollak challenges the school board’s use of its personnel rule to do just that.

While there may be a justification for a school board to prevent citizens from discussing personnel matters in public meetings, the board here deploys this rule to distort debate about important policy issues. It weaponizes the rule to prohibit individuals from criticizing the very officials responsible for enacting those policies.

Pollak also challenges another speaking policy that prohibits “gossip” and “abusive or vulgar language.” Numerous federal courts have held that these kinds of speech restrictions discriminate against speakers based on their viewpoint and thus violate the First Amendment.

The Institute for Free Speech took over Pollak’s case after the Court of Appeals denied his request for a preliminary injunction and remanded the case to the trial court for a final decision on the merits. Pollak’s lawsuit asks the court to declare that the school board’s policies violate the First Amendment and permanently enjoin the board from enforcing those policies in the future.

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