The impact of a lawsuit the Pennsbury School Board settled last week with four district residents over their right to comment at board meetings could extend far beyond Bucks County.
The ruling is “a wake-up call for school boards across America. Parents and speakers have a First Amendment right to criticize school policies and officials in public meetings,” Alan said. Gura, vice president for litigation at the Institute for Free Speech in Washington. , CC
The nonprofit represented Lower Makefield residents Douglas Marshall, Robert Abrams, Simon Campbell and Tim Daly in their legal action filed in October seeking to block Pennsbury Council from using the provisions of its policy code to decline their right to comment on a variety of issues, including the school district’s budget and its education equity initiative.
“Public speaking at school board meetings is actually protected by the First Amendment,” wrote Judge Gene Ellen Pratter of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, who heard the case and issued a preliminary injunction restraining the district to enforce regulations that the court found free speech was prohibited, as well as requiring speakers to list their home addresses.
The injunction led to the settlement agreement which the school board unanimously approved at its July 14 meeting.
The settlement states that the school district’s insurance company will pay the $300,000 settlement to cover plaintiffs’ attorney fees and nominal damages, and the district or its insurer will pay an additional $17.91 to each of the four plaintiffs. This amount was chosen in recognition of the year 1791 when the First Amendment guaranteeing the right to free speech was ratified.
Most of the funds — $237,590 — will go to the Institute for Free Speech, while $62,410 will go to Norristown-based law firm Vangrossi & Rechuitti, which also worked on the case, the report says. settlement.
The defendants included former school board president Christine Toy-Dragoni; current Board Chairman TR Kannan; other current and former school board members; Cherrissa Gibson, district director of equity, diversity and education; former lawyers Peter Amuso and Michael Clarke; and former district communications director Ann Langtry.
The lawsuit stems from comments the four men attempted to make at board meetings from December 2020 to June 2021 in which they were allegedly cut short before their time to comment expired or their comments were removed from the minutes or video of meetings.
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District officials cited school board policy codes 903, covering public participation in meetings, and 922, a “civility policy” against personal attacks or abusive or inappropriate language, but the men claimed in the lawsuit that they were not allowed to express their views because they criticized the council and its actions.
In her injunction decision, Pratter pointed out that Marshall’s comments during a March 2021 meeting were deleted from the video of the meeting.
School Board President Christine Toy-Dragoni then issued a public statement explaining that the comments had been removed because they “were abusive and unrelated to the work taking place in the Pennsbury School District.” Ms Toy-Dragoni said that “[t]his comments went from expressing a point of view to expressing abusive and racially coded beliefs and ideas, also known as ” dog whistles”. She also apologized to the community for not interrupting Mr. Marshall as he made his comments,” Pratter wrote.
“The board’s actions after the meeting (including the board chair’s public apology) were prompted by Dr. Cherrissa Gibson, district director of equity, diversity and education, who after the meeting where Mr. Marshall spoke, spoke to the board about his views of Mr. Marshall’s comments Two weeks after the board-edited video was posted, it was superseded by the full version, unedited.
In a May 2021 meeting in which Abrams, Daly and Marshall spoke during the public comment period, the judge pointed out that then-assistant attorney Amuso “yelled over speakers during their allotted time segments, shouting, “You’re done. “”
The judge pointed out that policies 903 and 922 “are vague because they are irremediably coated in subjectivity. What can be considered ‘irrelevant’, ‘abusive’, ‘offensive’, ‘intolerant’, ‘inappropriate’ or “otherwise inappropriate” from speaker to speaker and listener to listener.”
The board has since revised Policy 903 and removed Policy 922.
Kannan said Monday that “the board is pleased to have this issue resolved by mutual agreement and we can now focus on the students in our district. The community of Pennsbury is better off for the actions we have taken.”
Clarke did not comment on the settlement. Amuso, Toy-Dragoni and Gibson could not be reached for comment.
“The rules for public comment periods are intended to maintain time limits and protect each speaker’s right to be heard, not the police whose views are being expressed. Pennsbury’s rules were so vague and subjective that the board could effectively shut down any speech they didn’t like, and they did just that,” said Del Kolde, senior counsel at the Institute for Free Speech.
Gura said other school boards should “take notice.”
“Public comment rules must respect First Amendment rights of speakers. If you limit the opinions that can be shared, you will be held liable for violating First Amendment rights,” Gura said.
Daly declined to comment on the settlement until it was signed by all parties.
In a statement on the Institute for Free Speech website, plaintiff Simon Campbell, a former Pennsbury school board member, said, “This lawsuit serves as a valuable civics lesson for students in American public schools. The Pennsbury School Board, which promotes censorship, is not above the law. When government officials work to silence the First Amendment rights of U.S. citizens, those officials can be held accountable in federal court.
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association has taken note of Pennsbury’s developments. “The PSBA recognizes the importance of the right to freedom of expression, as do our members. We develop policy guides based on state and federal laws and regulations and court decisions that interpret those laws and regulations. The association advises districts to work with their school advocate to develop and implement the policy based on their unique school community and district operations,” spokeswoman Mackenzie Arcuri said.