Pennsbury School Board can no longer prevent public comments it deems offensive. What does this mean for other neighborhoods?
A federal court order against the Pennsbury School District for restraining public comments that officials deemed abusive or irrelevant has caused districts in the area to reconsider how they would handle heated or hate speech at meetings school board – a regular occurrence in some communities over the past year.
The order, made by U.S. District Judge Gene Pratter, came in response to a lawsuit filed Oct. 1 by four residents in the Bucks County District who said their comments were censored, limited or disrupted by the board, in large part because they questioned its fairness initiatives.
“The First Amendment protections for free speech apply to speaking at public school board meetings,” Pratter said in a notice accompanying his Nov. 17 order, which granted a preliminary injunction against the district but has not settled the case.
She agreed that Pennsbury’s policies prohibiting certain comments – including those considered “personally directed”, “offensive”, “abusive” and “irrelevant” – seemed vague and too general, and ordered the District to stop making them. apply.
Many school boards in the region have a similar policy in place, modeled after a model recommended by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, and those boards “are going to have to put it on hold,” said Jeffrey Sultanik, lawyer for several districts in the region. of Philadelphia.
Although the Pennsbury order only applies to this district, it could be used in lawsuits against other school boards. And Pennsbury says he plans to appeal – which could lead to a ruling that would be binding on all school systems in the nine counties of the Eastern District in the federal court. Meanwhile, Annette Stevenson, spokesperson for the association of school boards, said her model policy was “currently under review,” but declined to comment further.
The Pennsbury School Board “is proud of its work at its meetings to ensure that all children in the district have an equal opportunity to receive a great education, and that work will continue,” said spokesperson Jen Neill. âThe district welcomes contributions from its stakeholders in a productive and respectful manner as a means of achieving this goal. “
Among the residents who took legal action was Simon Campbell, a former Pennsbury school board member who said the country “was founded by disruptive and disrespectful people”. He and his fellow plaintiffs were represented by the Institute for Free Speech, which called the order a “wake-up call for school boards across America.” The Washington, DC-based nonprofit is also representing members of the Moms for Liberty group in a similar case against the Brevard County School Board in Florida.
The Pennsbury board came to attention this summer after a fiery speech by Campbell accusing the board of censorship – including calling its chairman Benito Mussolini – went viral. President Christine Toy-Dragoni said she had received death and rape threats which escalated with national attention.
Some believed that last month’s court ruling might further fuel antagonism.
“It has the potential to make public comments more disrespectful,” said Kenneth Roos, another lawyer for the local school district, although he added that being recorded during meetings “hopefully … discourages. people to behave in a blatant or inappropriate manner. “
At Central Bucks, school board member Karen Smith saw Pratter’s order as “like putting gas on a fire at this point.”
At the last board meeting, some public comments sparked outrage – including one suggesting links between Jews and organized crime and calling for a stand “against Zionism and Communism”, and another fearing that transgender students have âthe rightâ to rape girls in bathrooms.
Smith intervened on that last comment, calling, “Enough.” But board chairman Dana Hunter allowed the commentator to continue – noting that “these are his three minutes.”
Smith said her reaction arose out of a “buildup” of comments from previous meetings targeting transgender people. âWe don’t have a lot of these students, but it’s very difficult for them,â she said. Board policy would have justified ending comments, she said, but “now we can’t do anything.”
Smith and three other nine-member board members issued a statement after the meeting condemning the comments. The board meets again – along with the newly elected members – on Monday.
Tina Stoll, president of the North Penn School Board, said her board has been told it can respond to comments that may be hateful – “maybe not go tit for tat,” but clarify that the board does not approve of such speech.
âWe can’t grab the mic, or mute them, or whatever. Frankly, I think sometimes that’s what they want – to get attention, âsaid Stoll, whose board has held tense meetings, especially around the masking.
When people brought charges against board members, they were allowed to speak: Stoll said, âWe’ve always said, ‘Thank you for your comment. Next.’ “
Some have sought to limit the role of board members in monitoring public comment. In West Chester – where School Board President Chris McCune picked up the microphone this summer from a woman whose deadline expired as she demanded to know if the district was teaching Critical Race Theory – the district asked his lawyer to start attending meetings and enforcing boundaries.
In Philadelphia, the ACLU sued the district in March on behalf of two community groups, alleging that a new policy limiting the number of people who can comment at meetings prevented meaningful participation.
The Pennsbury parents’ lawsuit focused in part on the actions of district attorney Peter Amuso. At a board meeting in May, Amuso cut off three men who had started to criticize the district’s fairness policy. One said that the diversity, equity and inclusion efforts were based on a “predetermined narrative”, ignoring “for example, that first generation Nigerian immigrants excel”.
“You have finished!” Amuso yelled at each of the men, calling their comments “irrelevant.”
The meeting followed controversy surrounding the district’s handling of public comments at its March meeting. The man who spoke about Nigerian immigrants, Doug Marshall, also one of the plaintiffs in the censorship lawsuit, at the March meeting questioned equity efforts while explaining the history of racial issues in the country.
Marshall was not interrupted that night. But at the urging of the district’s director of equity and diversity, the council later deleted his remarks from a video recording of the meeting, releasing a statement that “the comments have moved from the expression from a point of view to the expression of abusive beliefs and ideas coded in racist terms. terms, also known as “dog whistles”. “
In his view, Pratter, while not calling Marshall’s comments offensive, wrote that the First Amendment “protects offensive speakers” and said that the censorship of comments deemed racist by the District was “point discrimination. of inadmissible sight â.
She disagreed with the district’s argument that failure to follow its policies would lead to violence, calling the claim “deliberately provocative.” She noted that the board could call the police if a speaker threatened violence, a policy the plaintiffs did not dispute.
They also did not challenge the ban on obscene comments. And while Pennsbury can no longer ban “personally directed” comments, lawyers say that doesn’t mean school boards should allow speakers to target a board member’s family or other personal characteristics – only his or her. role in the district.
Sultanik said the decision could be viewed with optimism, as an invitation to “tolerance from another point of view which you might find personally offensive.”
But in a time of heightened animosity and polarization – and the potential for yet another round of controversial board meetings as the future of the Pennsylvania school masking order hangs in the balance – this might not. not be realistic, said Sultanik.
âI truly believe that much of this public discourse is doing very little to change anyone’s mind,â he said.