Court Upholds Parent’s First Amendment Rights In School Board Meeting
Several months ago a parent in New Hampshire was arrested for “exceeding his two minute comment period” when he spoke at a school board meeting in Gilford to draw their attention to some questionable material his high schooler was required to read. The honors class had been assigned the book “Nineteen Minutes” which contained language that the parent said the local paper could not even print. “If someone were handing out this material right in front of the classroom in which students were reading the text, he would most likely be arrested, prosecuted, and convicted for distribution of pornographic material to a minor,” said William Baer the parent who was arrested by Gilford police at the request of the school board on May 6, 2014. On some level the school board must have agreed because they refused to read the portions of the text he asked them to at the meeting.
You can read more about this case here.
This month, Belknap County judge James M. Carroll handed the school board and local prosecutor their hats stating in his ruling, “The sequence of the arrest actions cause pause by the court as to the chilling, if not silencing of a citizen by the state, for actions which do not warrant a criminal arrest nor conviction. The court finds that the actions for ‘order’ by the state do not ‘balance,’ in the facts of this particular case, the speech rights of the defendant.”
The judge also confirmed that the school board’s claim that Mr. Baer “disrupted the public meeting” was disproved by their own testimony that indicated they had already adjourned the meeting when Baer spoke.
“The court finds that the defendant’s action never created a breach of peace sustaining a criminal complaint.”
This was truly a victory for parents who wish to petition their government for a redress grievances also guaranteed by the first amendment. Since it was the county prosecutor who filed the complaint, the “state” seemed to be blocking those first amendments rights and the judge called them out on it.
Baer is happy about the ruling, but still concerned that the charges were not dropped.
“They were dismissed by a New Hampshire Circuit Court judge after a full hearing. In spite of having months to review the law and the facts, the prosecutor refused to drop the charges or even propose a plea, but rather continued to seek a conviction to justify the state’s violation of my First Amendment right of free speech, and my unlawful arrest,” he said.
“The ruling is a wonderful step forward in returning parental rights when it comes to education. It unfortunately did not address the larger point that the parent was not allowed to have his grievances against the government addressed publicly, but only granted the ability to comment outside the constraints of the school board meeting. In today’s world of the 3 minute rule where the public is given a ridiculously tiny period of time to list their grievances to the only government body with the power to address them and that body is forbidden from responding to their complaints publicly, we still do not have our full first amendment rights as citizens, let alone parents. Hopefully there are more judges out there like Judge Carroll who are willing to remind these government bodies of our rights and their responsibility to uphold those rights.
Read more on this story here
Post Script – Lest you think Mr. Baer’s complaint borders on censorship of a particular author, consider the review of this book provided on Goodreads which said, “the nuance and magic of her [Jodi Picoult] earlier writing is gone.” The review opens with “Recommended for: someone desperate for anything to read.” So this was supposed to be a exemplary piece of writing for students to study and think critically about? School boards who are ultimately responsible for the curriculum choices of a district (I’m sorry Mr. Superintendent, they are) should not be concerned that the quality of material chosen is that of an after school made-for-tv special? This was a lost opportunity on so many levels.