Philadelphia, PA – Last May, a solicitor for the Pennsbury School Board shouted down and censored critics of a new district policy during public comment time at a board meeting, screaming “you’re done!” Several of the targets of his wrath said, “see you in court.” After almost a year of litigation, the board agreed last night to settle the lawsuit and pay $300,000 in attorney’s fees and nominal damages.
In addition, the district has rewritten its public-comment policy to conform to the First Amendment and the federal court’s preliminary injunction ruling. It also abolished its so-called civility policy and parted ways with the law firm that was advising it during the time it censored comments, including the solicitor who shouted down speakers.
The lawsuit was filed last October by Bucks County residents Douglas Marshall, Simon Campbell, Robert Abrams, and Tim Daly. They were represented by attorneys from the Institute for Free Speech and Michael Gottlieb of Vangrossi & Recchuiti.
“School boards across the country should take note. Rules for public comments must respect the First Amendment rights of speakers. If you are limiting which opinions may be shared, you’ll be held liable for violating First Amendment rights,” said Alan Gura, Vice President for Litigation at the Institute for Free Speech.
A federal court ruled in November that several Pennsbury policies governing speech at school board meetings were unconstitutional. Those policies, modeled after a template recommended by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA), allowed the meeting’s presiding officer to stop speakers whose comments were deemed “personally directed,” “personal attacks,” “abusive,” “verbally abusive,” “irrelevant,” “disruptive,” “offensive,” “inappropriate,” or “otherwise inappropriate.” After an evidentiary hearing in Philadelphia, Judge Gene Pratter found ample evidence that the Board selectively enforced the rules to stifle criticism of its actions and members.
The plaintiffs in the case were censored for attempting to criticize district policies, including efforts to promote contested ideas about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Marshall was once interrupted mere seconds into speaking because the solicitor objected to his use of the term “critical race theory” to describe the district’s initiatives. Critics of the board were cut off for addressing their comments to board members, while other speakers were permitted to directly praise board members and school employees.
“Rules for public comment periods are meant to maintain time limits and protect each speaker’s right to be heard, not police which viewpoints are expressed. Pennsbury’s rules were so vague and subjective that the board could effectively shut down any speech they didn’t like, and that’s exactly what they did,” said Del Kolde, Senior Attorney at the Institute for Free Speech.
After the injunction was issued, Pennsbury abolished one of the two policies challenged in the lawsuit and rewrote the other to comply with the First Amendment. The court also ruled against a board requirement that speakers publicly announce their home address before beginning their remarks. According to a spokesperson for the PSBA, the model policy was put under review after the court’s ruling.
The abuses in this case, however, went beyond the restrictions on speech recommended by the PSBA. School board officials in Pennsbury were particularly hostile to speakers’ right to express their opposition to board policies during public comment periods. On one occasion, school board officials edited video of a board meeting to remove a critical comment by one of the plaintiffs. The school board president even publicly apologized for not censoring the plaintiffs more aggressively.
Under the settlement agreement signed by the board, the district must pay $300,000 for the plaintiffs’ attorney fees as well as nominal damages of $17.91 to each plaintiff, a symbolic payment acknowledging that the plaintiffs’ rights were violated. The amount was chosen because 1791 was the year the First Amendment was ratified.
The Institute for Free Speech is committed to upholding the First Amendment rights of parents and citizens at school board meetings. Recently, the Institute successfully represented three Missouri residents who were prohibited by their local school board from referring to their organization by name and threatened with permanent speaking bans under a selectively applied policy against advertising on district property. After a federal court issued a preliminary injunction finding that the board’s application of the rules to public comments was likely unconstitutional, the district agreed to abandon its censorship and settle the case. The Institute is also currently representing four members of Moms for Liberty in a lawsuit challenging speech restrictions at school board meetings in Brevard County, Florida.
School boards may restrict comments that are obscene, exceed the allotted time limit, or make true threats, but they may not censor speech based on its viewpoint. Citizens in Pennsbury and all across Pennsylvania can now speak freely without fear of arbitrary censorship under the PSBA’s unconstitutional model policy. 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 title is Marshall v. Amuso. 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.