Federal court strikes GA school district policy limiting freedom of speech

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by Félix Pérez

A Georgia school district’s policy for members of the public to speak at school board meetings violated the First Amendment’s freedom of speech, and the district is immediately and permanently prohibited from enforcing the policy.

U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy granted a permanent injunction this month against the Walker County School Board and its policy of limiting comments on issues of importance from the public, in this case a teacher.

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“The Court finds that Plaintiff has demonstrated that the Policy is facially unconstitutional and that Plaintiff is entitled to an injunction,” wrote Murphy in his ruling. “Given the importance of First Amendment rights, the Court finds that the harm to Plaintiff absent an injunction outweighs any harm to Defendants that an injunction might cause.”

Murphy agreed that the Walker County School District placed significant impediments on the right of Jim Barrett to speak publicly in opposition to the change in the district’s grading procedures. Murphy noted the district “can, and should, draft a new Policy or revise the old one to address concerns, rather than shutting down public comment entirely.”

Barrett, a social studies teacher who coaches high school football and soccer, charged superintendent Damon Raines denied him an opportunity to speak at a school board meeting. Barrett’s legal challenge said he met all requirements prior to the meeting.

Barrett, a social studies teacher who coaches high school football and soccer, said, “The superintendent . . . should have allowed me to speak against the standards.  Judge Murphy correctly ruled that this was a classic case of viewpoint discrimination.”

High school social studies teacher Sid Chapman, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, which filed the lawsuit on Barrett’s behalf, said:

This case once again confirms the first amendment right of our educators to speak out and against policies they feel are harmful to their students and public education overall. 

Gerry Weber, an attorney for Barrett, said, “The school board’s policy allowed the superintendent to silence speech he disagreed with.  Judge Murphy held that everyone, especially teachers, should be able to talk directly to their school board on issues of public concern to them and their students.”

Reader Comments

  1. It’s time for those bureaucratic school boaard knuckleheads
    to get educated on the U.S. Constitution,
    and STOP suppressing citizens’ First Amendment rights!!

  2. Ok. We’re being asked at my District to make sure the school board and upper-level administrators don’t hear us accusing the District of shady financial dealings and less-than-transparent attitude about sharing budgetary information. Parents groups are calling for a state audit. I think there’s something in teachers’ agreements with the District that prohibits an employee from publicly speaking “negatively” about the school district….Does this ruling override that? Also, was the gentleman who sued the Georgia district a) a resident/voter/taxpayer in that district as well and/or b) a member of a union?

    1. The decision to limit free speech particularly against district and administrative decisions is Machiavellian and contrary to the values of the United States, yet we see these policies enacted all over the nation. The collective voice of unions is the only way to protect faculty and staff who are charged with providing quality of educational standards and are blamed when those standards aren’t met. Too often, bad administrators will corrupt the system, acting like tyrannical rulers rather than facilitators of what teachers need to educate students. We must fight this every step of the way.

    2. You can voice your opinions if you present yourself as a member of the public and not in your capacity as a district employed teacher.

    3. There are no “unions” as such in Georgia. As I understand it, workers are expressly forbidden from attempting to unionize. The GAE therefore, is an “organization” with no real negotiating power. Not sure if it matters why he was Union or not? The judge’s ruling was 100% correct.

    4. 1) Freedom of Information or Public Open Records act–public school district financial records are public information.

      2) contact SId Chapman of GAE and ask about it. They filed one lawsuit, they can either file another or make sure it is enforced, if appropriate.

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