St. Louis, MO – Residents of St. Charles County, Missouri, are now free to cite political organizations and websites at school board meetings, following the conclusion of a federal First Amendment lawsuit filed by three members of Francis Howell Families. On June 14, Judge Stephen R. Clark approved a consent decree and closed the case challenging the Francis Howell School District’s censorship of group names during public comments.
Under Judge Clark’s order, the Francis Howell School District must permanently allow the plaintiffs to refer to Francis Howell Families and its website, as well as allow “any other speaker” to refer to “any other website as an information source during scheduled patron comments, so long as the speaker is speaking on a topic relevant to the school district, school board, or education policy.” The district further agreed to pay $70,000 for the plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees to the Institute for Free Speech, a nonpartisan First Amendment advocacy group that defends political speech rights. The district will also release a statement affirming its commitment to public participation in board meetings.
“We are pleased the district agreed to settle the lawsuit and respect our clients’ First Amendment rights. A ban on advertising on school property is no excuse to censor political speech in public comments. This case should serve as a reminder to school boards across America that they cannot single out their critics for selective enforcement of speaking rules,” said Del Kolde, Senior Attorney for the Institute for Free Speech, who represented the plaintiffs in the case.
Citing district policies that prohibit ads on school property, Francis Howell officials threatened three county residents with permanent bans on speaking at school board meetings if they named their organization, Francis Howell Families, or its website in their remarks. Yet the board allowed other speakers to promote organizations and causes, such as the local teacher’s union and Black Voices Matter, during public comments. The board itself used meetings to promote favored organizations and viewpoints, often screening videos from the Missouri School Boards Association that express opinions about hot-button political issues.
The First Amendment does not allow government officials to pick and choose which viewpoints or organizations may be discussed at public meetings. In April, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Eastern Division, found that the district’s selective application of the advertising ban was likely unconstitutional. The court issued a preliminary injunction preventing the district from enforcing the policy against the plaintiffs for naming their group or website during public comments. The district then entered into settlement talks, which concluded with a board vote to approve a settlement on June 2.
“Today is a day to celebrate. Not only are our members free to cite Francis Howell Families and its website at future board meetings, but so too is every community member who wishes to reference any organization or online resource. This is an important victory not just for our members, but for free speech in the entire community,” said Ken Gontarz, President of Francis Howell Families and a plaintiff in the case.
“The board of education attempted to censor our speech at school board meetings because they did not like what we had to say and were afraid of our growing support in the community. Now, the successful outcome of this lawsuit sends a clear message that the board cannot avoid difficult conversations by forbidding the mention of things they don’t want to hear. This settlement ensures that everyone will have a fair opportunity to speak at future board meetings,” said Chris Brooks, member of Francis Howell Families and a plaintiff in the case.
School boards too often neglect the First Amendment rights of their critics at public meetings. The Institute for Free Speech is proud to stand with parents and citizens who assert their constitutional rights to speak, assemble, and petition the government.
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.