After board president Mary Lange sent threatening emails to multiple Francis Howell Families members and then cut off another’s microphone during patron comments, we reached out to the Insitute for Free Speech for assistance. They filed a lawsuit on behalf of those individuals in federal court, and we are now pleased to announce the results.
After the judge granted a preliminary injunction forbidding the board from censoring our speech, the district agreed to negotiate a settlement. The terms are summarized as follows:
- The district agrees to make preliminary injunction permanent
- The district agrees to not apply their advertising policies to censor speech during public comments at board meetings
- The district agrees to pay attorney’s costs (through their legal insurance)
- The district agrees to send out the following statement:
The Francis Howell School District values stakeholder comments and the public’s participation in its Board meetings. Members of Francis Howell Families—a local group—recently sued the District and Board of Education regarding their right to reference the group and its website during the patron comments section of school board meetings. A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in favor of the Francis Howell Families members. In order to avoid further expenses and litigation, the parties have reached an agreement to resolve the lawsuit. The Board acknowledges the guidance from the judge, agrees with the members of Francis Howell Families that it will not apply the questioned advertisement policy to patron comments, and will review and assess any necessary policy revisions. The District remains committed to listening to and valuing the feedback of all patrons.
- In return, we agree to dismiss the case against the individual defendants and resolve our claims
- The case will be administratively closed so that the court retains jurisdiction to enforce a consent decree formalizing the outcome of the lawsuit
We did not file the lawsuit lightly. From the start, our concern has been the precedent that would be set if public speech during public comments could be unilaterally declared as advertising and silenced. Based on emails retrieved from a Sunshine request, it was clear that the board president and the superintendent worked together to silence our speech, and the rest of the board members at the time were aware of the plan. To silence our speech, they used as a pretext the district’s advertising policy, claiming that simply mentioning the website or organization was unapproved advertising because FHF had a donate button on its website.
If this decision had been allowed to stand, it would have had a chilling effect on patron comments during board meetings. Fortunately, the attorneys at IFS agreed to represent us, and the judge saw things our way. While this settlement means that we won’t get the satisfaction of having the court officially declare that the board president violated our constitutional rights, the fact that the board acknowledges the judge’s preliminary injunction ruling (and has agreed to stop trying to silence speech) means that it’s pretty clear we were going to win that point.
While we are satisfied that the settlement legally resolves the behavior of Mary Lange in this incident, it is frustrating that she and the rest of the board have not yet apologized for their actions. When they are sworn into office, all board members vow to support the Constitutions of the United States and of the State of Missouri, both of which incorporate free speech rights. With her act of censorship, Mary Lange has abused her authority and violated her oath of office. If she had any civic virtue or integrity she would resign as board president. She and the rest of the board who allowed this action should be voted out as soon as possible. Two of those board members are already gone, and we look forward to next April’s election when three more (including Lange) can be replaced.
Here is the IFS press release on our victory: https://www.ifs.org/news/victory-missouri-school-district-agrees-to-stop-censoring-parents-group-and-pay-70k-in-attorneys-fees/
What you can do:
- Attend a board meeting to voice your concerns – See here for schedule and more information.
- Please contact us to find out more, help us to find and elect a better school board, or to share your concerns and experiences
- We are hard at work looking for (3) great candidates for FHSD board in the April 2023 election. Please contact us if you might be interested.
- Consider making a donation to help us elect better school board members.