A U.S. District Court in Virginia recently held that a jury should decide whether to hold a school board president personally liable on claims that she violated the civil rights of a citizen when she abruptly stopped the citizen from speaking at a school board meeting and ordered him to sit down.

On April 14, 2008, the Clarke County School Board met to consider the superintendent's recommendation that a female, African-American principal be demoted to a classroom teaching position. The school board invited public comment on the matter. The board president asked interested speakers to complete public comment cards, and advised that remarks would be limited to three minutes. Approximately 150 individuals showed up for the board meeting in support of the principal.

Kenneth Liggins, who is African American, was one of 16 individuals who signed up to address the board during the public comment portion of the meeting. When it was his turn to speak, Mr. Liggins began by stating, “[b]e it known that my name is Kenneth Liggins. As I sat and heard what you all have already done, it reminded me that you all did with willful intent to violate Section VII of the Civil Rights Act .” At which point, the school board president interrupted Mr. Liggins and asked him to sit down. The board president stated, “[y]ou are accusing this board of an illegal act. We will not tolerate that.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Liggins tried several times to continue his address to the school board. Each time, the school board president immediately interrupted Mr. Liggins and ordered him to "sit down". After it became clear that Mr. Liggins would not do so, the school board president summoned the sheriff. Mr. Liggins conceded the podium when the sheriff arrived.

Thereafter, Mr. Liggins filed suit against the school board, the board president, and several individual board members claiming that his First Amendment right to free speech and his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law were violated.

The trial court dismissed the school board on summary judgment, finding there was no evidence that the school board, as an entity, embraced any policy of silencing citizens at its public meeting, or that other school board members directly condoned the conduct of the board president. Individual board members other than the board president were also dismissed from the suit for similar reasons.

However, the court refused to dismiss the school board president on her defense that she was entitled to qualified immunity as a public official from Mr. Liggins' free speech and equal protection claims. The court held that the school board had established a limited public forum by making its meetings generally available for expressive activity. The court noted that, "officials presiding over such meetings may 'cut off speech which they reasonably perceive to be, or imminently to threaten, a disruption of the orderly and fair progress of the discussion , whether by virtue of its irrelevance, its duration, or its very tone and manner.'" However, any such restriction must not discriminate on the basis of the speaker's viewpoint.

The court concluded that the issue of whether Mr. Liggins was silenced for expressing his particular viewpoint (for which qualified immunity does not apply), or because the board president reasonably believed that his remarks threatened the orderly progress of the meeting (for which qualified immunity would apply) was a fact issue that must be decided by a jury. In its ruling, the court specifically noted that the board president emphasized, on more than one occasion, that her reason for cutting off Liggins was that he was accusing the board of an illegal act, and not that he was speaking in a manner that threatened to disrupt the orderly conduct of the meeting.

The court also allowed a jury to hear Mr. Liggin's "class-of-one" claim that the board president's suppression of his speech was motivated, in part, by his race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court found that there was a genuine issue of fact as to whether the school board president intentionally treated Mr. Liggins differently from other citizens who addressed the board without any rational basis for this disparate treatment.

As of the date of this publication, Mr. Liggins' claims against the school board president are awaiting trial to a jury.

Lessons Learned

When a school board establishes a limited public forum by opening its meetings to public discussion, it must be cognizant of the scope of the public's right to free speech. A board and its individual members should be cautious in placing restrictions on free speech other than time, place and manner restrictions. Prior to taking a position on the content of a citizen's speech, a school board and its board president should be aware of the permissible reasons and proper procedures to regulate speech and/or to maintain control and order over a school board meeting. As evidenced in this case, an individual board member may be personally liable if their decision to silence a citizen's speech proves to be unconstitutional.

Should you have any questions concerning the laws and constitutional provisions governing the operation of school board meetings, please contact an attorney in our Education Law Practice Group.