A group of conservative Georgia mothers on a quest to ban library books has won a key victory against a school district that sought to limit their ability to recite graphic passages from those books at school board meetings.
Forsyth County Schools agreed this month to pay $107,500 in legal fees to the group, called the Mama Bears. Like many conservatives nationwide, the Mama Bears have taken to trying to get books removed from school libraries by reading sexually explicit passages aloud at school board meetings.
The agreement to pay legal fees stems from a late January consent judgment and injunction against the school district. The Mama Bears’ July 2022 lawsuit against the district detailed how Forsyth’s school board banned one mother from attending its meetings. The woman, Alison Hair, had insisted on reading sexually explicit material aloud before the board.
“The hope is that other elected officials, people who are on school boards and thinking about running for school board, or school officials that interact with them like superintendents, see this result and are more careful when they are tempted to censor other parents in the future,” said Del Kolde, a senior attorney with the Institute for Free Speech, a D.C.-based nonprofit that opposes campaign finance restrictions and represented the Mama Bears pro bono.
The January injunction prevents the district from enforcing what a federal judge called its “respectfulness requirement,” which school board members used as grounds to prohibit the Mama Bears’ read-alouds. The policy also had prevented the public from personally addressing board members and the superintendent or from using profane, uncivil or abusive remarks.
A spokesperson for the Forsyth County School District said its leaders are considering a revision to the policy, which most notably would eliminate language that speakers must conduct themselves in “a respectful manner.” It would also eliminate a rule that speakers not address board members individually nor be loud and boisterous. The revised proposal makes clear that law enforcement may get involved should speakers make physically threatening remarks, hateful racial epithets or other comments that would result in a meeting disruption. The board is set to vote on the new policy tonight
Kolde said emails discovered in the course of the lawsuit showed how school officials worked to make it harder for parents to criticize them.
In a March 24 email, Forsyth County Superintendent Jeff Bearden wrote to the board and a district spokesperson: “We must stop the ‘playing to the audience, pep rally mentality.’ One way to do that is limiting the amount of time for public participation.” He went on to suggest cutting total public participation at each meeting to 15 minutes.
Days earlier, Jennifer Caracciolo, the district’s communications director, urged the board to “take back the purpose” of the meetings.
“We must get back to our BOE meetings being about the work of the district and not about providing a public platform,” she wrote.
In a statement, the district said the emails Kolde cited were sent 11 months ago: “A lot has happened since they were sent, including this lawsuit which was settled between both parties. As such, as a district, we have moved forward from this issue.”
Individual school board members declined to comment on the settlement itself.
Cindy Martin, a mother of four and chair of the Mama Bears, said the group, dissatisfied with the district’s refusal to remove titles from shelves, continues to challenge books at meetings. The lawsuit, she said, was a victory even for people who disagree with their cause.
“The message is, you are servants of the American people, and you cannot silence those you serve,” Martin said in an email. “The freedom to speak is essential for our constitutional republic to survive. Government officials must always respect it and uphold it, even when it's speech they don't like.”
Kevin Goldberg, an attorney and First Amendment specialist with the nonprofit free-speech advocacy group Freedom Forum, said the Mama Bears’ victory could lead to even more challenges of restrictions on what people can say at school board meetings and who can be banned from them.
“It’s going to embolden other individuals and groups to stand up to school boards,” Goldberg said. “Because now they’re seeing one organization come out of this with success.
“This is a loss for the school board and, frankly, it’s a success for free speech.”