Shawn McBreairty addresses the RSU 22 board of directors during a meeting Nov. 17, 2021. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Conservative activist Shawn McBreairty will have his days in court this week in separate proceedings concerning two different school districts over what he claims are efforts to limit his right to free speech.

McBreairty, 52, of Hampden is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last month against Hampden-based Regional School Unit 22 in U.S. District Court. The first hearing in that case is in Portland on Tuesday.

He is also a defendant in a case filed last year by the Hermon School Department in Penobscot County Superior Court. McBreairty’s motion to dismiss that case will be heard at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor on Thursday.

The cases could have wide implications for Maine schools at a time when even small towns are seeing divisive and nationalized battles over LGBTQ and gender identity issues. McBreairty, who has already won a settlement from RSU 22, is challenging a Maine law that requires a public comment time during school board meetings but allows boards to establish “reasonable standards” for the public comment period.

Many school committees in Maine prevent people at board meetings from criticizing staff, teachers and students by name. Both RSU 22 and Hermon require that those complaints be made privately to the appropriate supervisor. McBreairty has criticized teachers by name in both districts at their respective school board meetings. His Hermon case concerns the aftermath of these policies.

Attempts have been made to gavel him to silence, but he has refused to stop talking or playing a pre-recorded statement, according to court documents. Hampden police escorted him from meetings earlier this year. In Hermon, board members have paused meetings and left the meeting room when he named staff members.

It is the second time McBreairty has sued RSU 22 in federal court. Last fall, the district settled a lawsuit for $40,000 over the school board banning him from public meetings. A federal judge found that banning an individual from meetings because of the content of the speech was unconstitutional.

McBreairty sued the district a second time last month in U.S. District Court in Bangor. McBreairty alleged he was not allowed to speak on Feb. 15 and March 15 during the public comment portion of the school board meeting.

McBreairty claims the rule allows school officials to praise staff, teachers and students during board meetings but prevents any negative public comments about individuals. He is seeking a preliminary injunction to force the district to change the rule.

The standard for a judge to grant a preliminary injunction is high. The person seeking one must show the case is likely to succeed on its merits, there is the potential for irreparable harm if the injunction is denied and how the effect of the court’s ruling would impact the public interest. If the injunction is denied, the case would move forward on its merits.

The lawsuit in which McBreairty is a defendant was filed nearly a year ago by the Hermon School Department. It sued him in May after he called a former teacher a “sexual predator” and “head of the hypersexualization movement” in statements on social media, his podcast and local radio as well as in a letter to the school department.

The lawsuit asked a Superior Court judge to declare that McBreairty engaged in bullying and harassing behavior toward the teacher, and that his behavior violates school policy. The department also wants a judge to prohibit McBreairty from engaging in similar behavior to protect the teacher and other Hermon educators from future bullying and harassment, according to the complaint.

The teacher allegedly had to change classrooms, seek counseling and miss work because of the emotional distress that McBreairty’s statements caused. Other educators have resigned or threatened to leave the department because of McBreairty’s “baseless attacks,” the complaint said. The teacher no longer works in Hermon.

McBreairty has moved to dismiss the lawsuit arguing that he expressed opinions about the teacher, some of which were based on facts. He also argued that the district’s anti-bullying policy can only be applied to employees but can’t be applied to private citizens.

Judges in the cases are not expected to rule immediately but are expected to take the arguments under advisement. No matter how judges rule in the respective cases, their decisions are expected to be appealed.