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‘Mama Bears’ sue Forsyth County Schools for censorship

FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — A group of moms is suing the Forsyth County Board of Education on grounds that their First Amendment rights have been violated.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court on July 25 by two members of the group Mama Bears of Forsyth County, an unincorporated association whose mission is to organize, educate and empower parents to defend their parental rights.

It states “protecting the innocence of Forsyth County’s children” is central to Mama Bears and its members, primarily by barring the availability of “pornographic materials” in school libraries.

The lawsuit stems from a meeting in March in which Forsyth County Board of Education Chairman Wes McCall called for a recess after repeatedly asking a parent, Alison Hair, to stop reading sexually explicit excerpts from school library books. The board’s policy prohibits profane remarks.

While individuals were allowed to re-enter the room after the break, the lawsuit states Hair left altogether because of “concerns that she might be arrested.”

Court documents show McCall sent Hair a letter, dated March 17, prohibiting her from attending future meetings until she submitted a statement in writing agreeing to follow the board’s public participation rules and his directives as chairman.

Hair received a second letter May 11, signed by McCall, Vice Chairwoman Kristin Morrissey and board members Lindsey Adams, Tom Cleveland and Darla Light, again prohibiting her from attending meetings until she agreed to the stipulation. The lawsuit states Hair had already stopped attending board meetings for fear of retaliation.

Hair, a member of Mama Bears, and group Chairwoman Cindy Martin filed the lawsuit against all five School Board members in federal court on July 25. Hair’s child is no longer a student in the district, but Martin’s is, it states.

In the lawsuit, Hair and Martin accuse the board of seven violations, including to their right to free speech, right to petition, vagueness, overbreadth and prior restraint.

It asks the court to issue an order preventing Forsyth County Schools and board officials from enforcing the ban against Hair’s participation in board meetings and “several unconstitutional provisions” of its public participation policy.

These include requirements that speakers refrain from comments deemed by the meeting’s presiding officer to be “personal attacks,” “rude,” “uncivil,” “defamatory” or “profane.” The lawsuit also seeks an order permanently enjoining the defendants from discriminating on the basis of viewpoint in providing access to School Board meetings.

Hair said the suit is not about any one parent or group but about making sure all resident’s rights are respected at meetings.

“The board’s actions have been shocking and completely unfounded,” Hair said. “We hope and pray the court sets things right.”

Martin said they will not back down.

“The Mama Bears of Forsyth County formed spontaneously when mothers across the district discovered the sexually explicit books in our children’s school libraries,” Martin said. “When Chairman McCall and the board censored us from reading the explicit language in these books because children were in the room, they proved our point.”

Allison Hair at Forsyth

Allison Hair speaks at a March 15 Forsyth County Board of Education meeting.

Hair and Martin are represented in the lawsuit by attorneys from the Institute for Free Speech, a nonpartisan First Amendment advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that defends political speech rights.

A week before filing the lawsuit in Forsyth County, the Institute for Free Speech successfully defended four residents over their right to comment at Pennsbury School Board meetings in Pennsylvania.

Alan Gura, vice president for litigation at the Institute for Free Speech, called the ruling a “wake-up call for school boards across America” that parents have a First Amendment right to criticize school policies and officials at public meetings, according to the Courier Times.

The settlement in Pennsylvania stipulates that the school district’s insurance carrier pay the $300,000 settlement to cover the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and nominal damages, and the district or its insurer pay another $17.91 to each of the four plaintiffs.

That amount is in recognition of the year 1791, the same year the First Amendment guaranteeing the right to free speech was ratified. The lawsuit in Forsyth County also seeks $17.91 in nominal damages and attorneys’ fees.

Martha Astor, attorney at the Institute for Free Speech, says that even though the Forsyth County Board of Education may think Hair and Martin’s speech is offensive, it is a constitutional right.

“School officials cannot censor or ban parents from repeating ‘inappropriate’ language at board meetings, especially when they quote from relevant school materials and library books,” Astor said.

Well before the meeting in March, there had already been heated debates over the banning of certain books. In February, the district banned eight books out of more than 500,000 available in its school libraries for their sexually explicit content.

Students and parents had raised concerns at past board meetings that the books were disproportionally about characters or written by authors who are LGBTQ+, women or people of color.

At the March meeting, the Board of Education began discussing possible changes to the district’s book challenge process following the introduction of Senate Bill 226, which makes it easier for parents to dispute books they consider “harmful to minors.”

The bill was signed into law in April, but districts have until Jan. 1, 2023, to develop new policies.

McCall did not respond to Appen Media’s request for comment on July 28, and Jennifer Caracciolo, a spokeswoman for Forsyth County Schools, said the district is unable to comment on pending litigation.

A hearing for the lawsuit has not been set.

Reach Chamian Cruz at 770-847-8079. Follow her on Twitter @xchamian.