Federal judge orders Forsyth schools to allow profanity at meetings

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

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

But public speakers must still avoid obscenity, says ruling in free speech lawsuit

People who speak at school board meetings in Forsyth County can swear at board members but must keep it smut-free.

That’s basically what a federal judge has ordered in a lawsuit brought by parents. One of them was banned from board meetings after she found passages from a school library book that she thought were offensive, then read them into the public record.

The temporary injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Richard W. Story says Forsyth County Schools must stop enforcing some of its board meeting rules while the lawsuit continues.

Among the school board’s meeting rules are one that says in part: “Members of the public shall conduct themselves in a respectful manner ... .” Another says in part: “Remarks shall not be addressed to individual Board members.”

Yet another says: “Speakers are asked to keep their remarks civil. The use of obscene, profane, physically threatening or abusive remarks will not be allowed. Loud and boisterous conduct or comments by speakers or members of the audience are not allowed.”

Story said Forsyth cannot enforce the rules requiring respectfulness or against personally addressing board members. And the school district cannot enforce its rules requiring civility and prohibiting profanity or abusive language.

The judge didn’t give the plaintiffs all they wanted, though: His order did not strike down the school board’s policy restricting obscene remarks or loud and boisterous conduct or comments. The Forsyth policy did not define the words, which was among the plaintiffs’ concerns.

School board meetings in the Atlanta suburbs have become a battleground over race and sexuality. In spring 2021, critical race theory became a rallying cry for angry residents. Next came calls to ban books that depicted sex.

The Forsyth plaintiffs, who are part of a group that call themselves the Mama Bears, say they are scandalized by the books available to children in school district libraries. So they’ve taken to reading passages aloud at board meetings.

The same strategy has been employed by speakers in other school districts, including in neighboring Cherokee County.

But Forsyth stood apart for the action it took against one speaker. Alison Hair was told she could not attend future meetings after she read from a young adult novel in March. She would only be allowed back if she promised to follow the rules.

She and fellow parent Cindy Martin then sued.

Hair told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last summer that her focus is explicit sex. She said the book that got her banished by the school board was in the middle school her son attended last spring.

“This is about polluting the minds of children. It’s about oversexualizing our children, making them numb to decent, meaningful, in my personal opinion, biblical relationships,” she said at the time.

“Our rights were violated. It was upheld in court,” Hair said Thursday, after the judge issued his order.

Martin said people, regardless of ideology, have a constitutional right to tell the government what’s on their minds. “Whether you’re on the left or the right,” she said, “this is a victory for all people.”

Both said they’ll be attending the next school board meeting in December, with Martin promising to be “that thorn in their side.”

Their lawsuit continues, but Clare Norins, a legal scholar at the University of Georgia, said the judge sent a clear message to Forsyth that the Mama Bears have a strong legal hand.

“He’s basically saying they’re going to likely win on at least some of their claims,” said Norins, director of the UGA law school’s First Amendment Clinic. “So at that point, you should probably think about settling.”

Forsyth County Schools wouldn’t say much about the judge’s order.

“Our counsel received the order last evening,” the district said in an email Thursday. “Since litigation is still ongoing, we are unable to comment further at this time.”

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