Judge Harold Murphy

Northern District of Georgia Judge Harold Murphy

A judge’s ruling that the Walker County school system has violated the civil rights of parents, students and its own employees could have far-reaching implications, according to the Georgia Association of Educators.

The GAE issued this statement following the ruling handed down on Monday, April 4:

“In a decisive free-speech win for teachers across Georgia, the U.S. District Court in Rome, Judge Harold Murphy presiding, granted a permanent injunction against the Walker County School Board and its policy of limiting comments on issues of importance from the public and in this case an employee of the system.”

Murphy’s ruling concludes a lawsuit that Jim Barrett, a teacher as Saddle Ridge Middle School and president of the Walker County Association of Educators, filed against the local school system.

Speaking as president of the Walker County Association of Educators, Barrett offered these remarks concerning the directed verdict issued by Judge Harold Murphy of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

“I am very pleased with Judge Murphy’s ruling — very glad that he went beyond just the policy of the board to address the discrimination issue that the superintendent was involved in.

“I think this is a huge decision for teachers all across Georgia. It tells them that they don’t lose their rights as citizens just because they are school employees.

“Again, I am very pleased and think this will be a watershed moment in Walker County education policy.”

In that suit, Barrett claimed a policy adopted in 2006 by the Walker County Board of Education thwarted his right to speak publicly during the monthly board meeting against across-the-board changes in grading procedures that were being implemented.

A vocal critic of changing grading policies being adopted system-wide, Barrett had asked to address the locally elected school board during its Feb. 17, 2015, meeting but was denied that opportunity by Superintendent Damon Raines.

Barrett had complied with a policy that required his meeting twice with the superintendent and also presenting a written request to be included on the agenda at least a week prior to the board meeting.

Murphy’s ruling was in response to a motion filed by Barrett’s attorneys, Gerry Weber and Craig Goodmark, to immediately and permanently stop the district from enforcing their illegal policy.

“This ruling confirms the unconstitutional nature of the policy that was in place to be used by the superintendent,” Barrett said.

Barrett notes that in his decision, Murphy said, “A rule or ordinance that gives public officials the power to decide whether to permit expressive activity must contain precise and objective criteria on which they must make their decision; an ordinance that gives too much discretion to public officials is invalid.”

Barrett continues that, “the policy prohibited complaints against employees of the district. The superintendent is an employee of the district and he should have allowed me to speak against the standards. Judge Murphy correctly ruled that this was a classic case of viewpoint discrimination.”

Weber, who maintains a private practice in Atlanta and is an adjunct professor of law at Georgia State and Emory universities, said he previously has been involved in probably five cases “where individuals have had their right to free speech violated during public meetings” of schools boards, city councils or commissions.

Regarding the order issued April 4, Weber said one of the major points in that summary judgment is that too much discretion is given the superintendent and that the policy made it much easier to speak in support of an issue rather than in opposition.

“The school board's policy allowed the superintendent to silence speech he disagreed with,” he said. “Judge Murphy held that everyone, especially teachers, should be able to talk directly to their school board on issues of public concern to them and their students.”

Weber said that any policy regarding appearances at public meetings should be “an easy process for taxpayers” and that government officials should want to hear from those who elected them and paid their salaries.

Attorney Goodman said, “Now, Mr. Barrett will be able to talk frankly with the school board about his GAE membership's concerns with the grading policy.”

GAE President Dr. Sid Chapman added, “This case once again confirms the First Amendment right of our educators to speak out and against policies they feel are harmful to their students and public education overall.”

Judge Murphy’s permanent injunction notes it is acceptable to establish rules for any public forum, in this case a school board meeting, to allow business to be conducted in an orderly fashion.

In this case, it seemed the school system had gone too far, and the judge cited Supreme Court decisions dealing with the First Amendment that determine “subject only to narrow and well-understood exceptions, does not countenance governmental control over the content of messages expressed by private individuals,” in ruling against Walker County.

In Turner Broadcasting System v. the Federal Communications Commission, it was stated, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.

Barrett hoped to voice objections to a policy change that makes test scores the only criteria for student evaluation. Homework and work done in the classroom is no longer considered when assigning grades, something that some teachers complain has made learning secondary to test taking. Further muddying the mix, students can retake tests in hopes of bettering their grade.

The grading policy was not addressed in the lawsuit, only that the leader of the local Association of Educators could not question its application during a public meeting of the elected school board.

District policy now requires anyone wishing to speak during a board meeting must first meet with the superintendent. The superintendent then can investigate the issues raised and schedule a second meeting within 10 days.

Murphy noted that the policy allows the superintendent, not the board, to determine what individuals and complaints are heard during the public meetings. Not only that, but Barrett claimed the policy is written in such a way that no complaints about employees can be raised in public. Murphy agreed with the plaintiff.

“The policy, on its face, prohibits all complaints about employees, not just those complaints that would qualify as sensitive personnel matters,” Murphy wrote.

The judge also deemed the policy unconstitutional because it placed no time limits on the superintendent’s making a decision regarding whether or not a complaint could be brought before the board.

While agreeing that the board’s contention that the policy was in place to regulate the flow of board meetings, the judge ruled the board could not close public access to public comment. Murphy wrote that the board “can, and should, draft a new policy or revise the old on to address concerns, rather than shutting down public comment entirely.”

The judge’s order states that Barrett’s claims for unspecified damages remain pending and can be determined either by a jury or in a pre-trial settlement.

Barrett’s attorneys could seek recovering costs associated with preparing and presenting the case or might call for punitive damages

“We’ve had one court-ordered mediation meeting prior to the judge’s ruling,” Weber said. “We are certainly open to negotiations for a settlement.”

 

Speaking as president of the Walker County Association of Educators, Jim Barrett offered these remarks concerning the directed verdict issued by Judge Harold Murphy of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.“I am very pleased with Judge Murphy’s ruling — very glad that he went beyond just the policy of the board to address the discrimination issue that the superintendent was involved in. “I think this is a huge decision for teachers all across Georgia. It tells them that they don’t lose their rights as citizens just because they are school employees. “Again, I am very pleased and think this will be a watershed moment in Walker County education policy.” 

Mike O'Neal is assistant editor for the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga. He can be reached at the Messenger office at 706-638-1859 and by email at moneal@npco.com.