Gainesville, GA – Last night a federal judge ruled that key portions of the Forsyth County School Board public comment policy were unconstitutional and barred their enforcement. He also ordered the district to end its ban on Alison Hair from speaking at board meetings.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed in July by concerned parents in Forsyth County, Georgia who want school officials to confront the sexually graphic material in books they provide to children in school libraries. The Board of Education, however, has censored speakers at board meetings who read excerpts containing language the Chair deemed “inappropriate” for public comments. After Ms. Hair persisted in reading book excerpts, the Board banned her from participating in future meetings unless she agreed to limit her First Amendment rights. Ms. Hair and other parent members of the Mama Bears of Forsyth County are represented in the lawsuit by attorneys from the Institute for Free Speech.
Judge Richard W. Story ruled that “the Board cannot require Ms. Hair to first waive her First Amendment rights in order to exercise those same rights.”
“We are pleased that the Court recognized that the Board repeatedly violated the First Amendment and restored Alison’s right to speak at meetings,” said Del Kolde, Senior Attorney at the Institute for Free Speech. “Parents and taxpayers have a right to harshly criticize public officials and have a right to read excerpts from school books. In this long and thoughtful opinion, the Court struck down numerous speaking restrictions that were subjective, poorly defined, and unconstitutional. We hope that other school boards will review their policies and ensure that they respect the First Amendment.”
In his ruling on the Board’s public comment policy, Judge Story wrote that the “public participation policy’s ‘respectful manner’ requirement impermissibly targets speech unfavorable to or critical of the Board while permitting other positive, praiseworthy, and complimentary speech. And that is exactly what the First Amendment is intended to prevent in a setting like a school board meeting. Members of the public must be able to provide their feedback and critiques, even if some people, Board members included, find that distasteful, irritating, or unfair.”
Judge Story also found that “the restriction on personally addressing Board members is not reasonable” and barred the Board from enforcing it because it too violated the First Amendment.
The lawsuit also challenged the Board’s “civility policy.” The judge interpreted the policy as a mere request and therefore was not unconstitutional as written. But he found that the Board treated the request as a mandate and unconstitutionally applied it to Ms. Hair. He wrote, “it appears that the Board may have selectively (and arguably inconsistently) applied it to certain speakers but not to others…. [T]he Board only punished Ms. Hair for her allegedly ‘uncivil’ remarks, restricting her from future meetings unless she agreed to follow the rules. They did not take the same actions with regard to … any other speaker.”
The judge also ruled the Board policy against “profane” or “abusive” comments “constitutes impermissible viewpoint discrimination” and violated the First Amendment.
The case is Mama Bears v. Forsyth County Schools before the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Gainesville division. To read the judge’s ruling, click here.