Court Orders Pennsylvania School Board to Allow Critics to Speak
Parents have a First Amendment right to criticize school policies and officials at public meetings
November 17, 2021
Philadelphia, PA – A federal judge on Wednesday ordered a Pennsylvania school board to allow parents and community members to criticize school policies and officials by name at public meetings. The court cited abundant evidence in its opinion that the Pennsbury School Board has abused its policies governing speech at meetings to discriminate against speakers based on their viewpoints. The ruling is an important step towards holding school boards everywhere accountable for their treatment of parents and citizens during public comment periods.
“Public speech at school board meetings is in fact protected by the First Amendment,” wrote Judge Pratter of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
The court’s order prohibits the Pennsbury School Board from enforcing a variety of restrictions on speech at public meetings while the case proceeds, including bans on speech deemed “personally directed,” “personal attacks,” “abusive,” “verbally abusive,” “irrelevant,” “disruptive,” “offensive,” “inappropriate,” or “otherwise inappropriate.” It also orders the Board to stop requiring speakers to announce their home address before making remarks.
Those provisions of Pennsbury School Board Policy 903 and 922 were challenged in October in a federal lawsuit brought by four parents and community members who were repeatedly censored at school board meetings. They are represented in the case by attorneys from the Institute for Free Speech, a nonpartisan First Amendment advocacy group that defends political speech rights.
“Today’s ruling is a wake-up call for school boards across America. Parents and speakers have a First Amendment right to criticize school policies and officials at public meetings,” said Alan Gura, Institute for Free Speech Vice President for Litigation. “We encourage Americans who have been silenced under policies like Pennsbury’s to contact us for help.”
While Pennsbury’s aggressive censorship of parents is shocking, its policies restricting speech at public meetings are common in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Earlier this month, the Institute for Free Speech represented the Brevard chapter of Moms for Liberty in a legal challenge to similar school board policies in Florida. As in Pennsbury, the Brevard County School Board is accused of selectively enforcing its ban on “personally directed” comments to allow praise but ban criticism.
Judge Pratter found ample evidence of selective enforcement in Pennsbury when the case went to trial in Philadelphia last week.
“[P]ositive and complimentary personally-directed comments supportive of Board and school employees are permitted to be expressed, but negative, challenging, or critical personally-directed comments are prohibited. Likewise, those who express support for a decision by singling out a School Board member are welcome, but those who criticize a decision are cut off. This is viewpoint discrimination regardless of whether speakers are at other times allowed to make a verbal personal attack,” she wrote.
In addition to the selective and arbitrary enforcement, many of the terms in Pennsbury’s policy are unconstitutionally vague. Compounding the problem, the school board presented “no evidence of ‘objective, workable standards’ to guide the presiding officer’s exercise of discretion” of the power to restrict speech. Instead, the decision to terminate a parent’s comment often turned on little more than the presiding officer’s own views.
“What may be considered ‘irrelevant,’ ‘abusive,’ ‘offensive,’ ‘intolerant,’ ‘inappropriate’ or ‘otherwise inappropriate’ varies from speaker to speaker, and listener to listener,” noted the court.
“The School Board has also censored and terminated comments deemed ‘abusive’ because they include comments deemed offensive racial stereotypes. While this Court does not address the School Board’s or its employees’ assessment of whether the speech was offensive or to whom, suffice it to say that the First Amendment protects offensive speakers,” the court wrote.
Wednesday’s order ensures that parents and community members will be able to speak freely at school board meetings in Pennsbury while the case continues. It also sends a signal to school officials across America that First Amendment rights must be respected at board meetings.