A federal judge ruled Wednesday that parts of the Forsyth County Board of Education’s public participation policy are unconstitutional, temporarily banning members from enforcing the full policy.
The ruling came as part of a lawsuit a group of local parents, called the Mama Bears of Forsyth County, filed in late July against Forsyth County Schools and members of the board alleging that their public participation policy and their decision to ban a parent, Alison Hair, from board meetings violated citizens’ First Amendment rights.
The plaintiffs later filed a motion for preliminary injunction, asking the judge to temporarily repeal the board’s enforcement of its policy and ban over Hair while the case continues forward before final decisions are made.
In his ruling Wednesday, Richard W. Story, U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Georgia, partially granted the injunction and noted the board would no longer be able to enforce parts of its public participation policy.
“We are ecstatic about this ruling,” said Cindy Martin, chair of the Mama Bears. “The Forsyth County Board of Education can no longer ban parents or free speech from their meetings. This ruling upholds the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and freedom to petition our government. No matter what side of an issue you are on, this is a victory for all people.”
One part of the board policies the court found unconstitutional is the requirement that speakers must address the board in a “respectful manner.” The ruling states the phrase is “highly subjective and lends itself to broad interpretation” by the board.
“In the Court’s view, the public participation policy’s ‘respectful manner’ requirement impermissible targets speech unfavorable to or critical of the Board while permitting other positive, praiseworthy, and complimentary speech,” the ruling states.
The court made the same decision on parts of the policy that ban speakers from addressing individual board members, ban “abusive remarks” toward board members, and require speakers to keep their remarks “civil” during meetings.
The ruling states that members could use the policy to avoid “any potential negativity or excessive critiques” and the enforcement of such policies could be “viewpoint based.”
The court also ruled the board policy banning speakers from using “profane remarks” during meetings should not be enforced, stating that such language is protected by the First Amendment in the setting of a government meeting.
The Board of Education had just added the provision against profane remarks to its policy in September following heated debates surrounding media center books that many in Forsyth County felt were inappropriate for children.
During those debates, some community members often tried to read from sexually explicit passages found in school library books during public participation at board meetings. But board Chair Wes McCall always stopped the speakers, telling them they could not use profane language.
At the board’s March meeting, Hair continued to read from one passage despite McCall’s efforts to ask her to stop and follow board policy. She yelled over McCall’s voice, leading others in the crowd to yell their own comments at the board.
McCall asked all community members in the meeting to leave the room, and following the incident, McCall sent a letter to Hair informing her she would not be allowed to attend future board meetings until she stated in writing “that you will follow the rules of the board regarding public participation and that you will follow my directives as board chair during public participation.”
Court documents show she received another letter in May, signed by all five board members, reminding her that she had violated board policy and would not be allowed to attend BOE meetings until the board received the written statement from her.
The ruling Wednesday noted the board’s decision to ban Hair from meetings “does not appear to be supported by the public participation policy.”
“Even if the public participation policy did purport to give the Board the authority to enact a permanent ban, it would not likely be constitutional,” the ruling states.
With this ruling, Hair will once again be able to attend board meetings.
“We were happy with the fact that he recognizes that our First Amendment rights were violated, mine especially,” Hair said.
Although Story mainly ruled in favor of the Mama Bears, he did deny part of their preliminary injunction. The plaintiffs requested that the portions of board policy banning “obscene remarks” and “loud and boisterous conduct or comments” also not be enforced while the lawsuit continues.
The ruling concluded, however, that the board has the right to put these policies in place to keep their meetings moving forward without disruption. Aside from these two requests, the injunction was granted.
When asked about the ruling, a Forsyth County Schools spokesperson said that while the lawsuit is ongoing, “we are unable to comment further at this time.”
The Mama Bears of Forsyth County are being represented by an attorney with the Institute for Free Speech, a nonprofit that works to protect First Amendment rights of citizens.
“We are pleased that the Court recognized that the Board repeatedly violated the First Amendment and restored Alison’s right to speak at meetings,” said Del Kolde, Senior Attorney at the Institute for Free Speech. “Parents and taxpayers have a right to harshly criticize public officials and have a right to read excerpts from school books.
“In this long and thoughtful opinion, the Court struck down numerous speaking restrictions that were subjective, poorly defined, and unconstitutional,” he continued. “We hope that other school boards will review their policies and ensure that they respect the First Amendment.”
Hair said Story’s ruling is temporary and final decisions have not been made in the lawsuit. In the original complaint, the plaintiffs made several other requests to the court to prevent Forsyth County Schools and the board from enforcing portions of its public participation policy, including the section asking speakers to refrain from “profane” and “defamatory remarks.”
The complaint also asks for costs and attorney’s fees and $17.91 in damages to each plaintiff. The amount of $17.91 for damages was chosen to represent the year the First Amendment was adopted, 1791.
While the case continues, Hair and the other members of the Mama Bears plan to “continue fighting” to permanently reverse the board’s policy.
“The school board has some decisions to make and then we will respond based on whatever they do,” Hair said. “But we are very grateful it came out this way and it’s in support of students and parents and, most of all, the men and women who died protecting our First Amendment rights. Because when those are taken away, we have nothing left.”