Atlanta, GA – The Forsyth County School District (“FCS”) has agreed to pay attorney’s fees in a federal lawsuit brought by parents who were censored at school board meetings. FCS will pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys $107,500, in addition to their previous agreement to pay the plaintiffs nominal damages of $17.91 and allow entry of an injunction preventing them from enforcing the unconstitutional portions of their public comment policy. All but the amount of attorney’s fees were resolved by a January 31 court order.
The plaintiffs, members of the local group Mama Bears of Forsyth County, were concerned about the availability of sexually explicit books in Forsyth County School libraries. They sought to express their views about the books, by reading from them during the public comment period. However, the board censored them by interrupting and cutting off their comments, or requiring them to use euphemisms instead of the actual text. Parent and plaintiff Alison Hair was also banned from future meetings until she agreed to limit her First Amendment rights.
On July 25, 2022, Hair, parent Cindy Martin, and the Mama Bears filed a federal lawsuit against FCS for violating their constitutional rights. They are represented in the case by attorneys from the Institute for Free Speech, a nonpartisan First Amendment advocacy group that defends political speech rights.
“The right to speak includes the right to craft a message in a way that offends or embarrasses public officials. If a student can check out a book from a school library, then a parent can read from that same book during public comment time in order to make a political point,” said Del Kolde, a Senior Attorney at the Institute for Free Speech. “We took this case on a pro bono basis, but federal law provides for payment of attorney’s fees when government officials violate our civil rights.”
“The Forsyth County Board of Education has cost this community a large financial loss due to their arrogant violation of our God-given right to free speech,” said Cindy Martin, Chair of Mama Bears, on behalf of the group. “Instead of admitting their wrongdoing and reinstating our rights, they hired lawyers to fight us in court. What an enormous waste of taxpayer money and school resources.
“We hope this is a lesson to our school board and school boards across the nation that they must respect parents and the First Amendment.
“The Mama Bears of Forsyth County express our deepest gratitude to our attorneys, Del Kolde and Erika Birg, for their outstanding work. We greatly appreciate their dedication to restore our freedom to speak and protect our children.”
In November, a federal judge ruled that crucial portions of the board’s public comment policy were unconstitutional and barred their enforcement. As a result, FCS abolished its respectfulness requirement, the restriction on personally addressing board members, and any restriction on profane, uncivil or abusive remarks.
The judge also ordered the district to end its ban on Alison Hair from speaking at board meetings.
The Institute for Free Speech will continue to work with parents to defend free speech at public school board meetings across the country.
The case is Mama Bears v. Forsyth County Schools before the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Gainesville division. For more information, click here.
About the Institute for Free Speech
The Institute for Free Speech is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that promotes and defends the First Amendment rights to freely speak, assemble, publish, and petition the government. Originally known as the Center for Competitive Politics, it was founded in 2005 by Bradley A. Smith, a former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission. The Institute is the nation’s largest organization dedicated solely to protecting First Amendment political rights.