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.”