Parents Have First Amendment Right to Stand Up and Speak Out at School Board Meetings!
You may have heard about some of the raucous school board meetings that have occurred at the Pennsbury School District in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in the summer of 2021.
A combination of draconian school board policies on shutdowns and mask mandates, and the introduction of Critical Race Theory into the curriculum and practices of schools across the country, got parents’ tempers boiling. Many parents were attending school board meetings and letting school Board Directors know exactly how angry they were about these policies. Some School Boards reacted the way those in government often react when their policies are challenged – they try to shut down speech. But some parents in Bucks County, Pennsylvania decided that they would not sit down and shut up; instead, they decided they would stand up and speak out!
A group of parents sued the Pennsbury School Board and even its solicitor for violating their First Amendment Rights to free speech when Board Directors interrupted or terminated their speech. Parents brought both an as-applied and a facial challenge to the school Board’s Policy 903, which governs public participation in school board meetings. Although the public is permitted to speak during the public comment period, Policy 903 permits the Board to interrupt and terminate public comments if the Board believes the parents’ speech is “personally directed,” “abusive,” “offensive,” “otherwise inappropriate,” “personal attack,” “inappropriate,” and “intolerant.” In other words, if a lowly parent dares to criticize a school Board Director, the Board may shut down that parent’s speech and have that parent removed from the meeting.
Parents claimed in court that Policy 903 is both overbroad and vague and as such violates their First Amendment right to free speech. In Marshall v. Amuso, No. 21-4336, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 222210 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 17, 2021), the federal district court judge agreed with the parents and granted their request for a preliminary injunction. The federal district court ruled that challenged terms in Policy 903 are unconstitutionally “vague because they are irreparably clothed in subjectivity.” Id. at *18. Further, the court held that “The policies here are overbroad because they prohibit a broad array of constitutionally protected speech.” Id. at *21. Thus, the court enjoined the school Board from enforcing the challenged language in Policy 903 during the pendency of the underlying litigation. Now, the school Board cannot interrupt or terminate parents’ speech citing this challenged language. The school Board’s unfettered power to terminate speech has been clipped.
This ruling is just the first step in the case. The case is still active. Right now we are waiting for the court to rule on the Defendants’ various motions to dismiss. However, for the court to grant the preliminary injunction, which it did, it must have found that regarding the parents’ claims, there is a substantial likelihood of success on the merits. So the parents are confident that based upon this early ruling they will win the whole case. I will keep you apprised of any developments in the case. In the meantime, if you are a parent whose comments during the public comment period at your school Board meeting have been interrupted, restricted, or terminated by the school Board, do not hesitate to contact me at 717-657-7770. As a parent of four minor children, I am a strong supporter of parents’ rights and I do not like bullies.