Ellsworth City Hall on Aug. 17, 2021. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

An Ellsworth woman is suing the local school board and one of its members, alleging she was denied the right to free speech when she tried to question the board about whether it held a secret meeting.

The complaint from Gwendolyn Clark was filed last week in federal court in Bangor. Clark also believes the school board approved teaching critical race theory in local schools.

Clark claims she was prevented from speaking when she accused the board at its Aug. 12 meeting about having met previously without giving proper notice or allowing public access. During that same meeting, she accused school board member Abigail Miller of lying about whether the board was allowing critical race theory to be taught in local schools.

Clark believes a retreat held by the board on July 14 violated Maine’s public meeting laws. Miller told Clark on Aug. 12 that the retreat was mentioned during the board’s public meeting the day before, on July 13, and that the public was invited to attend.

Clark said Miller lied to her about critical race theory at the July 13 board meeting, when she denied it was taught in Ellsworth schools.

Critical race theory aims to frame American history through the lens of race, and to show how systemic racism has affected the country’s growth. It has come under fire from conservatives who say that the method distorts history.

Clark claims in the lawsuit that Miller cut her off at the Aug. 12 meeting and that she was not allowed to speak further. Clark went back to her seat in the city council chamber, where the meeting was being held, but later in the meeting tried to ask the board another question, according to the complaint.

“In response, the chairperson of the school board summonsed the Ellsworth Police Department to escort [Clark] out of the school board meeting,” the lawsuit alleges.

The board had requested a police presence at the meeting in anticipation of Clark questioning them about critical race theory, as she had done before, according to the complaint. Clark claims the police presence at the meeting had a “chilling effect,” and the actions by Miller individually and the board as a whole violated her First Amendment rights.

In the complaint, Clark requested an injunction against the board to allow her to continue to exercise her right to free speech and to petition the government, and asks for unspecified monetary damages and attorney’s fees. Clark is being represented by Bangor attorney Brett D. Baber.

Daniel Higgins, superintendent of Ellsworth’s school department, and Kelly McKenney, chair of the school board, did not return messages Thursday morning seeking comment on the lawsuit.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....