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An Ohio school board gets sued for muzzling a parent and loses. Three cheers for free speech?

A Parental Victory on Free Speech

An Ohio woman sued after a school board president told her to ‘zip it.’

By The Editorial BoardFollow

May 8, 2022 5:36 pm ET

Parents continue to fight for a say in their children’s education, often against hostile administrators. Three cheers, then, for Ohio mother Ashley Ryder for successfully challenging a policy that limited what parents could say at school board meetings.

Ms. Ryder sued the Big Walnut Local School District Board of Education in an Ohio federal court in March. She said it had violated the First Amendment with a policy that allows the presiding officer at school board meetings to “interrupt, warn, or terminate” any public statements he deems “abusive,” “personally directed” or “antagonistic.” In late April the board settled with Ms. Ryder and agreed to end its restrictions on speech.

Ms. Ryder’s experience illustrated how the school board had abused the policy to silence critics. The Ohio mother believes schools should provide mental-health services for students, and she criticized newly elected school board members about the veracity of their statements on the issue. “Now that you’ve made a complete 180, my question for the board is this: Were you lying to your base to get elected, or are you lying now to the parents?” Ms. Ryder asked at a February meeting.

At that point, School Board President Doug Crowl interrupted Ms. Ryder, told her to “zip it for a minute,” and refused to allow her to complete her prepared statement. He then instructed other parents that “public participation is to explain to us your position, not to make accusations, not to call names,” and that “any personal attacks, name-calling, I will call out.”

That was especially egregious, Ms. Ryder’s lawyer Matthew Miller-Novak explains, because “what’s more important than a member of the public being able to state grievances about their government's performance?” The school board’s policy amounted to “facially unconstitutional” and “vague, content-based” restrictions on speech that also had a chilling effect, Ms. Ryder said in her complaint.

As parents across the U.S. are discovering, Big Walnut isn’t the only place with constitutionally questionable restrictions on speech at school board meetings. Ms. Ryder has set an example for how parents can fight back, but it’s a shame it took a lawsuit.

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