School Board’s Bar on ‘Repetitive’ Speakers Upheld

By Mark Walsh — November 12, 2009 2 min read
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A federal appeals court today upheld a school district’s policy of barring frivolous, repetitive, or harassing speech by speakers at its school board meetings.

The Jefferson County, Tenn., district was sued under the First Amendment by parents from two families who were barred from addressing the board a second time about a dispute involving their sons, who were kicked off the school football team in a dispute with their coach.

In the first meeting, the parents requested time during the board’s period for public speakers to address what they described as a “football” issue. The lawyer representing the two families actually addressed the board, speaking politely but critically about several school officials and threatening to sue the district over the dispute, court documents say.

When one of the parents sought permission in advance to speak at the next school board meeting, again regarding “football,” she was turned down. The district’s schools director consulted with the school board chairman, who believed the speech would be repetitive in violation of the board’s speaking policy. The schools director also thought the speech might be “harassing” in violation of the policy, since the parents’ lawyer had threatened a lawsuit at the first board meeting.

The families sued in federal district court, where a jury ruled for the Jefferson County district. The district judge also required the parents to pay the school district’s legal costs.

In its ruling in Lowery v. Jefferson County Board of Education, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled unanimously that the board’s policy and actions did not violate the parents’ free-speech rights.

The court held that the board’s policy was content-neutral and served important governmental interests.

“Unstructured, chaotic school board meetings not only would be inefficient but also could deny other citizens the chance to make their voices heard,” the court said.

The parents had had ample other channels to express their dissatisfaction with the decision to remove their sons from the football team, such as contacting several district officials, holding a press conference and, ultimately, filing a separate lawsuit over that issue, the court noted. (That suit was unsuccessful.)

The court expressed some concern that the schools director thought the second speech might be harassing because the lawyer had criticized district officials actions and threatened a lawsuit. “The board may not exclude speech merely because it criticizes school officials,” the court said. But the jury was correct to conclude that the concern about the repetition of topic was ultimately what motivated the district’s refusal to allow the second speech, the appeals court said.

The court reversed the district court’s order requiring the parents to pay the school district’s legal fees, in the sum of $87,000. The appellate panel said the lawsuit’s claims were not frivolous.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.