Three men fought public schools in court for their free speech. They didn't survive.

Shawn McBreairty's lawyer says one of the last things he told him: "Why do they get to lie and cheat and we have to play by the rules?"

Published: June 7, 2024 11:02pm

Mike Adams. Richard Bilkszto. Shawn McBreairty.

Three men in their prime, ages 53 to 60, died by their own hands in the past four years amid high-profile litigation to protect their speech critical of progressive education practices, showing the potential human toll of prolonged uphill battles against publicly funded institutions.

The most recent victim is McBreairty, a Maine parental rights activist, husband and father of two, whose latest lawsuit alleges First Amendment retaliation by the Brewer School Department for threatening to sue him for criticizing its alleged suppression of student speech against a transgender restroom policy. 

The Maine Office of Chief Medical Examiner confirmed Thursday that his June 3 death, a day before the federal court laid out the schedule through a January trial, was a suicide, the Bangor Daily News reported. His wife Patti's Facebook post alluding to her husband's death has received more than 160 sympathetic comments as of Friday.

McBreairty's lawyer, Marc Randazza, who told Just the News he's represented the activist in four cases in three years, believes a "bogus" legal threat letter from a party's lawyer two days before McBreairty's death played a role in pushing the 53-year-old over the edge. 

"Why do they get to lie and cheat and we have to play by the rules?" was one of the last things McBreairty told his lawyer, according to Randazza, who worried the stress was getting to his client but not that he would take his life.

"It is hard to explain to a layperson that they can't really do anything to you" when fighting the government, Randazza said.

McBreairty's allies, including Libs of TikTok, mourned his death and encouraged follows to circulate his critical essay about the district, which is posted as an exhibit in the lawsuit.

He "reluctantly" took it down from citizen journalism site YourNews in light of similar state litigation against McBreairty in 2022, by the Hermon School Department for alleged "bullying and harassment" against an employee, the suit says. He got another warning when he posted the threat letter itself "because of the content they chose to identify and disclose in the email."

YourNews owner Sam Anthony told Just the News he didn't want to attract a "frivolous" lawsuit by reposting the essay, which was archived soon after its posting Feb. 12.

Female students at Brewer High School told McBreairty that teacher Michelle MacDonald threatened to have them "charged with hate crimes" if they kept distributing a petition against males in their restrooms, and that Principal Brent Slowiskowski threatened discipline if they kept up, a claim verified by a father, the suit says.

His essay also pointed to a Portland Press Herald report from 2018 on then-Deering High School Principal Gregg Palmer, now Brewer's superintendent, performing in drag at a Genders and Sexualities Alliance event.

The district claimed the essay "invaded the privacy" of a male student who identifies as a girl by naming him and posting a photo of him standing at a sink in the girls' bathroom with female students, and MacDonald by sharing information from her own retaliation lawsuit against the district related to her transgender advocacy. McBreairty said all were "lawfully-acquired." 

The district, which does not appear to have a communications department, didn't respond to a Just the News request to Superintendent Palmer for its response to McBreairty's death.

Two other McBreairty cases are posted on Randazza's website, including the similar Hermon suit, now awaiting a ruling from the Maine Supreme Court after the trial court rejected Randazza's motion invoking Maine's law against "strategic lawsuits against public participation." 

Another federal court refused to block an RSU 22 School Committee policy banning criticism of public employees at its meetings – McBreairty had named them in critical comments – and the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February McBreairty didn't have legal standing because he had not shown "intention to engage in the speech in question at a future meeting."

Randazza also posted a narrative of legal updates and filings in the Brewer case. U.S. District Judge Lance Walker refused to issue a temporary restraining order or rule on the preliminary injunction motion before an evidentiary hearing, and the 1st Circuit has yet to rule on Randazza's emergency appeal nearly two months later.

Walker's ruling is "essentially … that the censorship should continue until the story doesn’t matter anymore," Randazza wrote. "YOUR First Amendment rights are meaningless if the government can suppress journalism like this, and the courts are complicit."


The July 2020 suicide of professor Mike Adams at age 55, soon after accepting a $500,000 settlement to retire early from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, sent shock waves through conservative activism and free speech circles. 

The atheist-turned-Christian conservative became a hero to both by prevailing in a seven-year religious discrimination lawsuit against UNCW in 2014, retroactively earning a promotion, back pay, $700,000 in legal fees and protection from further retaliation.

He stayed vocal in culture wars, including pro-life campus activism and opposition to COVID-19 lockdowns. UNCW paid him to leave in response to outrage over Adams' social media post addressing Gov. Roy Cooper as if the Democrat were a slaveowner.

"The consequences of Cancel Culture can be more dire than we think," Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression President Greg Lukianoff wrote in a personal essay last year about his long relationship with Adams and guilt he felt after Adams' suicide.

"He was shaken and upset in a way I’d never heard him before" when they spoke by phone after the settlement was announced, 10 days before his death, Lukianoff wrote. 

Among harassing and threatening messages, one prompted Adams to file a criminal complaint, which struck Lukianoff because "Mike was used to enduring a seemingly limitless amount of abuse." 

"I’ve seen others like me caught in the middle of the culture war have breakdowns and be hospitalized," but Lukianoff "never thought Mike was one of those people. He just seemed so supremely confident. …. And I was horribly wrong."

Toronto high school principal Richard Bilkszto, who came back from retirement in 2020 due to a superintendent's plea, took his life at 60, three years to the day after Adams' phone call with Lukianoff, according to an investigation by The Free Press that started before his suicide.

He was fighting to restore his name two years after a diversity, equity and inclusion trainer accused Bilkszto of white supremacy in consecutive sessions for challenging her statement that Canada is more racist than the U.S. The Free Press posted clips of the training.

Without naming Bilkszto, an administrator publicly praised the trainer for shaming him in front of his colleagues, who took it as a signal to pile on Bilkszto in the next session. The recordings show no one defended him, according to The Free Press.

While Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board awarded Bilkszto seven weeks of back pay for the "workplace harassment" that prompted his sick leave, he had been effectively blacklisted from future work in education despite being offered a yearlong contract extension the day after the first confrontational session, the report said.

His April 2023 lawsuit accused the Toronto District School Board of failing to defend him against the trainer's "defamatory statements" and he continued to suffer "damage to his character and reputation both personally and professionally" and "severe emotional distress."

A lifelong bachelor like Adams, Bilkszto had a close relationship with his nephew Jason, who told The Free Press he "seemed okay" at uncle Bilkszto's birthday party less than a month before his death.

"I wasn’t done getting advice from him," Jason Bilkszto said. "I feel like that’s been stolen from me."

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