Forsyth County Schools agreed to a settlement on Tuesday in a federal lawsuit filed by the Mama Bears of Forsyth County, taking on litigation costs and limitations around its public participation policy.
The Mama Bears group, which seeks to have certain books it deems sexually explicit removed from school libraries, responded by immediately challenging the policy again.
The group of local parents led by Alison Hair and Cindy Martin first filed the lawsuit against the district and school board in July, alleging parts of its public participation policy and its decision to ban Hair from board meetings violated citizen’s First Amendment rights.
Through the settlement, the district will no longer be able to enforce most of the policy sections listed in the original complaint.
According to court documents, this includes any current or future district public participation policy that would prevent speakers from “reading or quoting verbatim from the text of any book or written works available in any FCS library or classroom” while addressing the school board during regular meetings.
The district also agreed not to enforce any “respectfulness requirement” or any rules preventing speakers from addressing board members or the superintendent individually or from making “profane, uncivil or abusive” remarks.
This agreement applies to current district policy or any “substantially comparable provision in future FCS policy.”
“This is a great day for free speech,” Martin said. “The court’s order is a big victory for our members and everyone in our community. I will forever be grateful for our attorneys for their work to restore our freedom to speak and protect our children.”
Martin and Hair were represented by attorneys Del Kolde with the Institute of Free Speech and Erika Birg with Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarborough.
“If it can be checked out in a school library, you should be able to read from it during a school board meeting,” Kolde said. “This consent injunction provides long-term protection for the Mama Bears or any other Forsyth County parents who want to read from books available in schools in order to make a political or philosophical point during a school board meeting.”
On top of the policy limitations, the district also agreed to pay for costs and attorney’s fees along with $17.91 in damages to both Martin and Hair. The two chose the amount to represent the year the First Amendment was adopted.
According to court documents, the costs and attorney’s fees have not been determined. The Board of Education held a called meeting on Thursday where members voted to approve the settlement agreement.
While the rules agreed upon in the settlement take effect immediately, U.S. District Judge Richard W. Story noted it does not prevent the district from making changes to its public participation policy.
The district recently announced a new proposed public participation policy in which it plans to remove many of the same portions disputed in the lawsuit, including those stating that:
● Visitors at meetings should “conduct themselves in a respectful manner” so as not to disrupt the board’s business.
● Every speaker should address the board as a whole instead of individual members.
● Speakers should keep their remarks “civil” and avoid the use of “obscene” or “profane” language.
● “Loud and boisterous conduct or comments” by speakers at meetings are not allowed.
The policy is now open for public feedback on the district’s website, www.forsyth.k12.ga.us, before the board makes a final vote to adopt it at its regular meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 21.
This change, along with the settlement, allows citizens to speak without these limitations during public participation.
Speakers have already been afforded this ability since late November, thanks to a preliminary injunction granted by Story. The judge ruled that the same portions of the board’s policy were unconstitutional, temporarily preventing the board from enforcing it.
Since that ruling, Martin and Hair have returned to board meetings to read sexually explicit passages from school library books out loud, saying the books should not be available to students.
Despite the district’s effort to remove the sections of the public participation policy challenged by the lawsuit, the Mama Bears have decided to also fight against the new proposed policy draft.
One member of the group recently started a petition claiming that other separate portions of the drafted policy use “vague” and “subjective” language, noting that each community member who signs it objects to those sections. The sections outlined in the petition, however, are part of the board’s current adopted policy and were not additions to the new drafted policy.
This includes section seven of the proposed policy, which states that “the public is urged to follow other resolution processes set forth in Board policy or available at individual schools where those processes are clearly designed for this purpose.”
The petition states that parents have issues and concerns coming from “top levels in our schools without correction,” and they should have the opportunity to share concerns with school board members. Some of these districtwide issues the petition lists as examples are those relating to: Critical Race Theory, sexually explicit books, pronouns and “furries.”
While this section is already part of the current adopted policy, board members have not limited citizens from speaking on these issues as community debates have continued for over a year.
The petition also points out section eight, which states that “the use of threatening remarks, hateful racial epithets and other comments or conduct by speakers or members of the audience that result in a disruption of the meeting will not be allowed.”
The petition states that the wording of this section is subjective and “has the potential to be abused at the whim of a board member” as each member may have their own definition of the word, “hateful.”
Martin was one of the first of more than 90 people, as of Thursday, who have since signed the petition. She said she feels it is important for residents to not feel limited by the proposed policy in what they can say to their representatives on the school board.
“We must always be allowed to address our grievances to our government,” Martin said. “It’s part of the First Amendment. They cannot limit the topics of free speech.”
District spokesperson Jennifer Caracciolo said the proposed public participation policy is still open for public feedback on the district’s website where it will remain until Feb. 16. Those with thoughts on the policy can submit an online form at www.forsyth.k12.ga.us.
Before making a final vote on the proposed policy, Martin said she hopes the board will remove both section seven and eight.
“‘Hate speech’ is very subjective and is a dangerous road for any government official to go down,” Martin said. “I don’t think any board member wants to decide what is hate speech during a meeting.
“If they do, another lawsuit may be right around the corner.”