Court Strikes Down School Board Restrictions on “Irrelevant,” “Abusive,” “Offensive”, “Intolerant,” “Inappropriate,” or “Otherwise Inappropriate” Public Comments
From Judge Gene Pratter’s opinion today in Marshall v. Amuso (E.D. Pa.):
The Pennsbury School Board invites public comment at its meetings. The Board’s Policy 903 governs public participation in school board meetings and Policy 922 (designated by the Board as the “Civility Policy”) applies to all school activities. Any taxpayer, school employee, or student is allowed five minutes to make a comment, subject to certain requirements and restrictions. Speakers “must preface their comments by an announcement of their name, address, and group affiliation if applicable.” The Board’s presiding officer may interrupt or terminate public comments deemed “too lengthy, personally directed, abusive, obscene, or irrelevant.” The presiding officer may also “[r]equest any individual to leave the meeting when that person does not observe reasonable decorum” and can “[r]equest the assistance of law enforcement officers to remove a disorderly person when that person’s conduct interferes with the orderly progress of the meeting.” Similarly, “offensive, obscene or otherwise inappropriate banners or placards, or those that contain personal attacks” are prohibited….
Plaintiffs are four Pennsbury School Board meeting attendees whose public comments have been interrupted or terminated by Board members or designees based on Policy 903…..
In March 2021, Mr. Marshall gave a public comment without interruption. However, after the meeting video from that session was posted on the District’s website, the Board decided to take the video off the website to revise certain of Mr. Marshall’s comments to remove his comments the Board deemed after-the-fact to be in violation of Policy 903. School Board President Christine Toy-Dragoni then issued a public statement explaining that the comments were removed because they “were abusive and irrelevant to the work taking place in the Pennsbury School District.” Ms. Toy-Dragoni stated that “[t]he comments escalated from expressing a viewpoint to expressing beliefs and ideas that were abusive and coded in racist terms, also known as ‘dog whistles.”‘ She also apologized to the community for not interrupting Mr. Marshall as he was making his comments. The Board’s post-meeting actions (including the Board President’s public apology) were prompted by Dr. Cherrissa Gibson, the District’s Director of Equity, Diversity & Education, who, after the meeting where Mr. Marshall spoke, conferred with the Board about her views of Mr. Marshall’s comments. Two weeks after the Board-edited video was posted, it was replaced with the full, unedited version.
Then, at the May 2021 Board meeting, three of the plaintiffs claimed five minutes each in order to speak: Mr. Daly, Mr. Marshall, and Mr. Abrams. The meeting agenda included a presentation on the Pennsbury School District’s equity program. Mr. Amuso, the School Board’s Assistant Solicitor, interrupted each of Mr. Daly’s, Mr. Marshall’s, and Mr. Abrams’s comments at the May 2021 meeting for alleged violations of Policy 903.
First, Mr. Daly began by defending what the Board’s representative deemed to be Mr. Marshall’s “abusive” March 2021 comments. Mr. Amuso demanded that Mr. Daly terminate his comments because he (Mr. Amuso) considered them to also be abusive and irrelevant and thus in violation of Policy 903. He also interrupted Mr. Marshall’s comments because Mr. Marshall referred to the equity policy using a different programmatic title rather than the Board’s formal chosen title for that program/policy, and then Mr. Amuso terminated Mr. Marshall’s comments as abusive and irrelevant.
Mr. Abrams endeavored to discuss survey results for the equity policy and voiced his opposition to funding a program for the portion of respondents that reported they were unhappy, and Mr. Amuso terminated Mr. Abrams’s comments as “irrelevant to diversity in education.” In each instance, Mr. Amus
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