An Ellsworth woman who sued the city school board after it kicked her out of a meeting in August is withdrawing her complaint in exchange for the board receiving legal training.
The Ellsworth School Department’s board of directors has reached an agreement with Gwendolyn Clark that it will consult with its attorney about the First Amendment rights of citizens who speak at its meetings. Clark, in return, will drop her federal lawsuit against the board.
The board held a special meeting Tuesday night at which it voted 5-0 to accept the settlement with Clark. As part of the agreement, the school department’s insurance carrier will pay $5,000 to cover Clark’s legal fees.
“The insurance company felt paying $5,000 was a good decision for the school department,” Kelly McKenney, the school board chair, said following the vote. “The board agrees it has more important business than to litigate with a community member.”
Clark filed the lawsuit against the school board in late August, alleging that her First Amendment rights were violated when she was prevented from questioning the board at an Aug. 12 meeting about whether it previously had met in secret.
She accused the board on Aug. 12 of not having been truthful at a meeting in July about whether it was allowing critical race theory to be taught in local schools. School board members have maintained they have not authorized the use of critical race theory in the local school curriculum and that it is not being taught in Ellsworth.
In addition to suing the school board, Clark specifically named school board member Abigail Miller as a defendant in the lawsuit, saying Miller had cut her off at the Aug. 12 meeting and that later in the meeting when she tried to ask another question, she was escorted out of the meeting by an Ellsworth police officer.
In a prelude to the agreement between Clark and the school board, the claims against Miller were dismissed on Nov. 21.
Prior to the vote Tuesday night to accept the settlement, the board met in public session with its attorney, Melissa Hewey of Portland, to review the board’s general legal responsibilities in terms of crafting department policy, supervising the school superintendent, and complying with public access laws. As part of the review, the board and Superintendent Dan Higgins discussed with Hewey how the board should handle someone’s right to free speech when a member of the public addresses the board at a public meeting.
Hewey said that as long as someone’s comments are germane to school board business — and the comments don’t cross a line into being hate speech or a threat, and don’t involve direct criticism of an employee or a student — the board should let the person speak, even if he or she is expressing an opinion the board disagrees with or is saying something demonstrably false.
“Let them talk and then do what you think is right,” Hewey told the board. Telling someone to sit down and stop talking, she added, “should always be the very last thing to go to.”
Clark’s attorney, Brett Baber of Bangor, said that the school board is obligated to honor the First Amendment rights of citizens who appear before the board.
“Ms. Clark is pleased that the Ellsworth School Board was willing to receive training from its attorney regarding the application of the First Amendment to its proceedings,” Baber said. “Going forward, Ms. Clark anticipates that the Ellsworth School Board will scrupulously respect her First Amendment rights and those of other concerned citizens.”