A group of local parents filed a federal lawsuit against Forsyth County Schools and members of the Forsyth County Board of Education on Monday, July 25, alleging that district leaders violated their First Amendment rights.
The group includes parents Cindy Martin and Alison Hair and Mama Bears of Forsyth County, an organization “whose mission is to organize, educate and empower parents to defend their parental rights.”
They are being represented by attorneys Erika Birg and Martha Astor, who is with the Institute for Free Speech.
According to the complaint, the plaintiffs allege that the board of education and the school district violated their First Amendment rights to free speech during school board meetings earlier this year.
Parents and community members came to the meetings for public participation to speak directly to the board about the process for removing books from school media centers. Many who supported the removal of certain books said they found copies containing “sexually explicit” material they felt students should not have access to.
Some parents, including Martin and Hair, read content from the books during their three minutes allotted for public participation at several board meetings.
During some passages, BOE Chairman Wes McCall asked the speaker to pause, saying that reading these passages out loud went against the board’s public participation policy, which states that “profane, rude, defamatory remarks and personal attacks will not be allowed.”
It also states that speakers who violate this policy will “have their allotted speaking time immediately concluded.”
The complaint refers back to an example from March of this year where McCall asked Hair to stop reading an explicit passage. She continued reading, speaking over McCall, as reported in Forsyth County News coverage of the meeting. This led others in the crowd to yell their own comments at the board.
McCall asked that they hold a recess and for everyone to clear the room. After the recess, the remaining speakers were allowed in one at a time to speak to the board without an audience.
Hair said she received a letter from McCall in March informing her that she would not be allowed to attend a BOE meeting 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.
Copies of both letters were included in the filed complaint.
The complaint alleges that the board's policies violate First Amendment rights to free speech, which “protects speech that constitutes a personal attack, or that is uncivil, profane or rude.”
“The board may think their speech is offensive, but it’s protected by the First Amendment,” Astor said. “School officials cannot censor or ban parents from repeating ‘inappropriate’ language at board meetings, especially when they quote from relevant school materials and library books.”
According to the complaint, the plaintiffs wanted to get their point, that the books were not appropriate for school-age children and should not be in media centers, across to the board and community. They said they felt the most impactful way to do that would be to read the passages during the meetings.
“This lawsuit does not try to resolve the question of which books should be available in school libraries, but instead addresses unlawful attempts to sanitize how parents speak about those books in the presence of elected officials and other adults,” the complaint states. “The First Amendment guarantees plaintiffs’ rights to speak out and petition the government about which books belong in school libraries, and to do so by reading from those books during board meetings.”
According to the complaint, the plaintiffs are asking the court to issue an order preventing Forsyth County Schools and the Forsyth County Board of Education from enforcing Hair’s current ban from meetings and portions of its public participation policy, including the section asking that speakers 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 comes from the year the First Amendment was adopted, 1791.
Martin said she and the other parents will continue to fight for their First Amendment rights and will never back down “from protecting our children.”
“This lawsuit is not about any one parent or group,” Hair said. “This is about making sure every resident’s rights are respected at meetings. The board’s actions have been shocking and completely unfounded. We hope and pray the court sets things right.”
When asked about the lawsuit, a Forsyth County Schools spokesperson said “we do not comment on legal issues.”