Federal appeals court says Madison school board violated free speech rights

Restricting ‘viewpoint speech’ is wrong, they rule in case related to debate of district’s gun policy.

A federal appeals court has ruled the Madison Schools violated a grandfather’s free speech rights during the debates over its gun policy and an attorney says the penalty could be “in the six figures.”

Madison schools grandfather Billy Ison, his family and a friend sued the schools in February 2019 in the U.S. District Court in Cincinnati. They claimed the school board violated their right to free expression and made it virtually impossible for them to speak their views about the controversial concealed carry gun policy during school board meetings.

They asked District Court Judge Michael R. Barrett to issue a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to stop the district from requiring in-person registration and enforcing a policy section that says the presiding officer may “interrupt, warn or terminate a participant’s statement when the statement is too lengthy, personally directed, abusive, off-topic, antagonistic, obscene or irrelevant.”

Barrett determined the school board’s policy was proper. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided the board’s policy for the most part was constitutionally sound but restricting “viewpoint speech” is wrong.

“The restrictions on ‘antagonistic,’ ‘abusive’ and ‘personally directed speech’ prohibit speech because it opposes, or offends, the board or members of the public, in violation of the First Amendment,” the opinion reads.

The court remanded that part of the case back to Barrett to determine monetary damages. Ison’s attorney Jennifer Kinsley told the Journal-News awards in other cases where people’s First Amendment rights have been violated “have gone into the six figures.”

She filed an evidentiary hearing request Tuesday and in it she gave several examples of other First Amendment violation awards that ranged from $12,500 up to a $900,000 settlement.

Ison was removed from a May 2018 school board meeting while trying to express his displeasure with the school board’s decision to arm staff. The policy was instituted in the wake of a school shooting that injured four students in 2016.

The 6th Circuit said School Board President David French should not have stopped Ison from speaking just because the board didn’t agree with his viewpoint. The court also said the board’s characterization of Ison’s speech was contradicted by the video evidence.

“The video contradicts much of French’s testimony. Billy spoke calmly, used measured tones, and refrained from personal attacks or vitriol, focusing instead on his stringent opposition to the Board’s policy and his belief that the Board was not being honest about its motives ...” the opinion reads. “Having already found the ‘abusive’ and ‘personally directed’ restrictions facially unconstitutional, their application to Billy’s comments also constitutes impermissible viewpoint discrimination.”

Kinsley said Ison was also upset by the fact another school board member interrupted him mid-speech and demanded he be ejected from the meeting.

“Being escorted out of a public meeting by an armed security guard is pretty stigmatizing and it’s pretty upsetting,” Kinsley said. “And I think that’s something that really stuck with Billy.”

She said she will ask the court for damages for Ison’s treatment, attorneys fees and for an injunction to stop the district from enforcing the policy that restricts the public from giving their viewpoints.

Ison also challenged the fact the school district requires people to register two days in advance if they want to speak at meetings and every person must fill out their own form. Ison’s family members were barred from speaking at a meeting because they hadn’t filled out their own registration forms.

The 6th Circuit ruled those provisions of the policy are fine.

Neither school board members nor their attorneys would comment on the case.

The school district was dealt a blow last month by the Ohio Supreme Court when in a split decision it found armed staff need the same training as peace officers after several parents sued.

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