After being silenced and censored repeatedly for voicing concerns in school board meetings, local residents have served the Pennsbury School Board in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with a lawsuit for obstructing criticism of policies and stifling First Amendment rights.
Four concerned community members, Douglas Marshall, Simon Campbell, Robert Abrams, and Tim Daly, filed their claim in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on October 1. They are represented by attorneys from the Institute for Free Speech.
The plaintiffs accuse the school board of launching a multifaceted attack on their First Amendment rights at public meetings by shouting them down, implementing speech-restricting policies, and even editing their comments out of YouTube videos of the meetings. "The Pennsbury School District might be expected to teach Orwell's 1984 as literature or social commentary—not use it as an instruction manual," they assert in their complaint.
Heated exchanges at the public meetings went viral this summer after a video compilation of Pennsbury School Board members repeatedly obstructing criticism of their policies circulated on the internet. In the video, Pennsbury Assistant Solicitor Peter Amuso (who's not technically on the school board) can be heard continuously interrupting concerned community members, yelling, "You're done!"
"In May, Assistant Solicitor Amuso told me, 'You're done,' and I told him, 'I'll see you in court,'" Tim Daly, one of the men repeatedly cut off in the video, said in a press release, "The filing of this lawsuit fulfills the promise I made to ensure that the School Board members that violated my rights are held accountable."
Plaintiff Simon Campbell feels the board's conduct has had a chilling effect on local speech, telling Reason, "People have felt too intimidated to speak or make a public comment after witnessing how the school district has treated a number of us. It has caused many people to think twice about whether they should speak."
The board was also caught selectively editing out plaintiff Douglas Marshall's criticism of equity policies from the YouTube video posted of their March 18 meeting. An internal email released under Pennsylvania's "Right to Know" law confirms the motivation for doing so was based on content of speech.
In the email, Cherrissa Gibson, the district's director of Equity, Diversity and Education, voiced her concerns that the comments were "filled with microaggressions" and included "stereotypical beliefs that are harmful." She ultimately recommended the board "remove the portion of Mr. Marshall's public comments that are abusive and irrelevant from the audio recording."
The board subsequently edited the selected portion of testimony out of the YouTube video, which the lawsuit contends is tantamount to "'memory [holing]' speech based on its viewpoint" and "deleting speech from public records as though it was never spoken." When community members caught on and confronted the board for the selective censorship, they ultimately restored the video to its original form.
Furthermore, the Pennsbury School Board has implemented controversial policies, which the plaintiffs allege are aimed to restrict criticism of the board and its procedures. Policy 903, for example, vaguely prohibits speech deemed "irrelevant," "offensive," "personally directed," "abusive," or "otherwise inappropriate." It additionally requires those who testify to publicly state their full home address before making comments.
"Pennsbury officials are trampling on the First Amendment rights of parents and residents to speak their mind about their schools," Alan Gura, vice president for litigation at the Institute for Free Speech, said in a press release. "They have cut off parents in the middle of sentences, yelled over critics to prevent them from being heard, edited remarks out of recordings of public meetings, and intimidated speakers by forcing them to publicly announce their home address."
Amid a recent renewal of public engagement in school board meetings, the outcome of Marshall v. Amuso may serve as a reminder of the obligations elected officials have to their constituents, especially when the content and quality of their children's education is in question.
"The United States Constitution and First Amendment literally are not in their minds, in my opinion," Campbell told me. "They are drunk on their own government power. They have this smug attitude because they believe that if they're elected and vote on something, then all power is inherent in them. Our lawsuit is challenging that entire premise."
In Tuesday's school board elections, two incumbent members of the school board were reelected, and Democrats again won every seat on the board.