Parents Sue to Stop NYC Education Officials’ Assault on Free Speech

The lawsuit, filed by Institute for Free Speech attorneys, aims to halt viewpoint discrimination by New York City public schools

March 27, 2024   •  By IFS Staff   •    •  
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New York City, NY — The First Amendment does not allow New York City’s Department of Education to function as a Department of Conformity.

But that’s exactly what’s been happening in Community Education Council (CEC) 14. There, CEC 14 leaders have punished and chilled the speech of individuals who do not conform to the personal political views of the board’s leaders.

Aiding them in this effort is the New York City Department of Education’s (DOE) Regulation D-210, which governs the speech of CEC members and members of similar citywide advisory boards. The regulation permits anyone to file a complaint that then triggers an investigation and potential removal of CEC members for speech that others find offensive or disrespectful—even speech that may occur outside of CEC meetings.

That’s why the Institute for Free Speech has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of three elected parent leaders, challenging the unconstitutional conduct of CEC 14 officials Tajh Sutton and Marissa Manzanares, as well as the DOE’s unconstitutional policies.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, contends that Sutton and Manzanares have unlawfully excluded individuals from public meetings and blocked critics on social media, weaponizing their disdain for anyone who might push back against their ideological worldview. CEC 14’s actions and the D-210 regulation have chilled and punished the speech of parents Deborah Alexander, Noah Harlan, and Maud Maron, who serve as elected members of other New York City educational committees.

Alexander is under investigation for stating that one of her political opponents sent his child to a school in the district from which he was elected—a requirement of his office, and a fact that he has freely discussed, and which the DOE has officially publicized. Maron is currently under multiple D-210 investigations for private speech that occurred outside of school board meetings. In a group chat, she decried medical transition procedures for children, and she denounced as cowardly an anonymous editorial in a student newspaper that she called “revolting Hamas propaganda.” Maron’s political opponents have now threatened to seek her removal for sponsoring a successful board resolution calling for New York schools to reconsider their policies allowing biological males in female sports.

The second investigation is consistent with CEC 14’s strongly anti-Israel worldview.  When members of the public sought to criticize CEC 14’s support of an anti-Israel student walkout at a November council meeting, they were cut off and expelled on the basis of their views, while speakers expressing pro-walkout and anti-Semitic viewpoints were allowed to speak.

CEC 14 has also expelled Alexander from a virtual meeting, subsequently blocking her from accessing future meetings, because she is an outspoken opponent of Sutton and of Sutton’s political views. CEC 14 has likewise blocked Harlan, who is also largely opposed to Sutton’s views, from attending meetings, and refused to allow him to follow CEC 14’s account on X (formerly Twitter). CEC 14 also blocks Alexander and Maron from reading and interacting with its official X account.

Moreover, CEC 14’s “Community Guidelines” contain so-called “Absolute No’s” to govern public comment. These vague and overbroad rules, which include prohibitions on “any . . . forms of oppressive beliefs,” allow CEC 14 leaders to intimidate and punish speakers for viewpoints that run afoul of their narrow, rigorously enforced ideology.

“The First Amendment guarantees the right to criticize public officials and speak freely on matters of public concern. Yet, CEC 14 leaders have used school resources to promote their own extreme political views while excluding critics from public meetings and blocking them on social media,” said Alan Gura, Vice President for Litigation at the Institute for Free Speech. “Meanwhile, the DOE’s Regulation D-210 subjects elected parent leaders to inquisitorial investigations and threats of removal from office for ‘wrongthink.’ We’re asking the court to put a stop to these unconstitutional actions and protect the free speech rights of all New Yorkers.”

To read the complaint in Alexander, et al. v. Sutton, et al., click here. To review all the filings in the case, click here.

About the Institute for Free Speech

The Institute for Free Speech promotes and defends the political speech rights to freely speak, assemble, publish, and petition the government guaranteed by the First Amendment.

IFS Staff

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