Federal judge bans Forsyth school board censorship of profane speech

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

A federal judge ordered Forsyth County Schools to stop enforcing its ban on reading aloud from school library books at school board meetings.

U.S. District Judge Richard W. Story’s order, signed Tuesday, comes after a group of parents calling themselves the “Mama Bears” filed a lawsuit alleging the board had violated their constitutional free speech rights.

The school board had permanently banned one of the parents, Alison Hair, from attending its meetings until she promised to follow its meeting rules. The rules required “civil” engagement and prohibited “profane,” “rude” or defamatory remarks and personal attacks.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The board decided Hair violated the rules when she stood at the speaker’s lectern in March and read from a young adult novel she thought was sexually explicit. She said it was in her son’s middle school library.

Story’s order comes after a temporary injunction against Forsyth that he issued in November.

His final order permanently bans a prohibition on speakers at board meetings from reading or quoting from books available in school libraries or classrooms. And it says the board can no longer prohibit personally addressing board members and the superintendent. The order also permanently prohibits “any restriction on profane, uncivil or abusive remarks” at the meetings.

The order went into effect immediately, but Story gave the school board five days to sign an agreement settling the case. A district spokeswoman said the board is scheduled to consider the agreement Thursday and had no further comment.

The district was ordered to cover the attorney fees and costs for the plaintiffs. It was also ordered to pay Hair and fellow plaintiff Cindy Martin $17.91 apiece. The amount was symbolic because the states ratified the First Amendment in 1791.

A group called the Institute for Free Speech was a party to the case, providing the lawyers for Hair and Martin.

“If it can be checked out in a school library, you should be able to read from it during a school board meeting,” Del Kolde, senior attorney at the institute, said in a press release. “This consent injunction provides long-term protection for the Mama Bears or any other Forsyth County parents who want to read from books available in schools in order to make a political or philosophical point during a school board meeting.”