Parent group sues Forsyth County Schools claiming constitutional rights violated

Justine Lookenott

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On July 25, a federal lawsuit was filed against the Forsyth County Board of Education by a group of local parents(Image by Forsyth County School District)

Correction: An earlier version of this article said the March 15 Board of Education meeting took place before the School Board removed eight books from the school libraries. The School Board removed the eight books in January.

(Forsyth County, GA) On Monday, July 25, a federal lawsuit was filed against the Forsyth County Board of Education (BOE) by two parents and the Mama Bears of Forsyth County who allege that the BOE has violated their constitutional rights.

Represented by the Institute for Free Speech (IFS), the plaintiffs include Mama Bears of Forsyth County members Alison Hair and Cindy Martin (the group's chairwoman). Both women were active in protesting several books in the school libraries they viewed as having inappropriate content. The BOE removed eight of these books earlier in the year.

But several parents still wanted to see many other books removed as well. At a March 15 BOE meeting, Hair attempted to read out loud the content of one of the debated books. The Forsyth County News reported at the time that Hair was repeatedly asked to stop due to profane language, but she refused. That’s when Chairman Wes McCall stopped the meeting for a recess and cleared the room, only allowing one speaker at a time to return.

After that meeting, Hair received a letter signed by all of the BOE members banning her from future meetings until she gave a written guarantee that she would obey the Chair’s directives, which prohibit “inappropriate language.”

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A March 17 letter to Alison Hair from the Forsyth County Board of Education(Image by Institute for Free Speech)

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A May 11 letter from the Forsyth County Board of Education to Alison Hair(Image by Institute for Free Speech)

“We just want to use our three minutes of speaking time to show the Board what’s in the books they are making available to our kids,” Martin said. “The only way to judge these books is to read them. By stopping us from doing that, the Board is trying to protect themselves from disgrace and prevent other parents from being informed about these highly sexualized books in our schools. If the contents are deemed too 'profane' and 'inappropriate' to read at a school board meeting then just maybe the school system should not be providing them to children in the first place.”

The lawsuit states that the BOE “cannot require that citizens sacrifice their First Amendment rights as a precondition for participating in meetings.”

“The Board may think their speech is offensive, but it’s protected by the First Amendment,” said Martha Astor, the attorney at the IFS. “School officials cannot censor or ban parents from repeating ‘inappropriate’ language at board meetings, especially when they quote from relevant school materials and library books.”

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The Forsyth County Board of Education regular meeting on March 15(Image by Forsyth County School District)

The lawsuit also describes “aggressive enforcement tactics and a chilling environment for dissent,” saying McCall has opened every BOE meeting since February by announcing the public participation policy and that use of “profane or inappropriate” language will result in the speaker being stopped.

Two armed police officers and a security guard have also been posted at the meetings, and the suit claims that McCall interrupts and argues with speakers he disagrees with, sometimes refusing to return the speaking time taken from some of them.

“This lawsuit is about protecting the First Amendment right of every parent and citizen in Forsyth County so we can share our concerns at school board meetings,” Martin said. “The First Amendment prevents the government from censoring and controlling speech. Every citizen has the right to speak out and petition our government, especially our school boards because these are the people who influence our children’s education. I personally think Forsyth County schools are some of the best in the nation, but they cannot subvert the United States Constitution.”

The lawsuit seeks the following:

  • To prevent the school district and board officials from continuing to prohibit Hair from participating in BOE meetings
  • To end several of the requirements for public participants, including the requirement that speakers refrain from comments deemed by the meeting’s presiding officer to be “personal attacks,” “rude,” “[un]civil,” “defamatory” or “profane”
  • To prohibit the defendants from discriminating against speakers by not allowing them to participate in BOE meetings due to their viewpoints

“This lawsuit is not about any one parent or group,” Hair said. “This is about making sure every resident’s rights are respected at meetings. The Board’s actions have been shocking and completely unfounded. We hope and pray the court sets things right.”

Chief Communications Officer Jennifer Caracciolo said the district does not comment on pending legislation.

Mama Bears v. Forsyth County Schools is before the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Gainesville division.

To read the complaint, click here. For updates on the case, click here. A video of the March 15 Board of Education meeting can be viewed here.

If you have a news tip in Forsyth County, contact Justine Lookenott at justine.lookenott@newsbreak.com.

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I cover local news in Forsyth County, GA. My debut into the writing world began at the age of 10 when I won an essay contest in Around Acworth Magazine in which I wrote about spending the summer with my pet goat, Eclair. Since graduating from Kennesaw State University, I have been published in several newspapers and magazines in the Atlanta area including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Atlanta School Guide, What Now Atlanta, Newcomer Magazine, the Marietta Daily Journal and the Cherokee Tribune.

Forsyth County, GA
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