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Judge threatens parents with massive penalties for challenging school antiracism dogma: lawyers

Obama appointee deems teachers' First Amendment claims "frivolous" in challenge to antiracism training in Missouri school district, orders them to pay nearly $313,000.

Published: April 10, 2023 11:33pm

Two teachers challenging the constitutionality of compelled antiracism training have been ordered to pay nearly $313,000 in their Missouri school district's legal fees, under a ruling their lawyers called "overtly hostile" and "meant to scare off future lawsuits by parents and teachers."

The Southeastern Legal Foundation is appealing U.S. District Judge Douglas Harpool's summary judgment in favor of Springfield Public Schools and the six-figure award against their clients Brooke Henderson and Jennifer Lumley, according to an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals notice Friday.

The public interest litigation firm "has never faced attorney fees sanctions for challenging unconstitutional government action at any level" in nearly 50 years of so-called Section 1983 civil rights lawsuits against public officials, SLF Litigation Director Braden Boucek said in a press release.

General Counsel Kimberly Hermann called Harpool, a longtime Democratic elected official in Missouri appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama, "a lone agenda-driven federal judge" determined to "deny concerned teachers and parents the right to seek redress in court."

Henderson and Lumley filed the First Amendment compelled- and chilled-speech suit against the district in summer 2021, alleging the "equity training" forces employees to discuss their place on an "oppression matrix," advocate for "changes in political, economic, and social life," and disclose "personal details that they wish to keep private."

Harpool's Jan. 12 summary judgment in favor of the district cited a "total lack of injury" on the part of the teachers that "may suggest a groundlessness that trivializes the important work of the federal judiciary," foreshadowing the legal bludgeoning they would face on attorney's fees in his March 31 order approving the full award sought by the district.

Even so, "no one could have anticipated" the massive award based on SLF's track record, Hermann told Just the News.

SLF filed a similar suit around the same time on behalf of fired Illinois drama teacher Stacey Deemar, alleging that Evanston/Skokie School District 65 teaches students and teachers "not only how to be racist, but that they should be racist." 

The docket shows the original judge requested supplemental briefing on the district's motion to dismiss in September but left the federal bench two weeks later, requiring the case to be reassigned. U.S. District John Tharp took the parties' briefings "under advisement" in November but has not suggested when he'll rule, Hermann said.

Springfield Public Schools did nothing more than require teachers to undergo a training with which they were free to disagree, according to Harpool's summary judgment in favor of the district.

Henderson and Lumley "never faced any official discipline" for speaking "openly about their disagreement with some of the content of the training session," and their "exact claims about injury-in-fact remain somewhat unclear," the judge wrote Jan. 12.

They have not provided evidence they were compelled to "speak favorably" about the district's message or "somehow affiliate or associate" with that message, as evidenced by Lumley's allegation that "her own coworkers berated her during training" for disagreeing, Harpool wrote.

"At most," the training "encouraged" the teachers to "follow general principles of equity and anti-racism" without "incentive or disincentive to actually express a specific message," the order said. Their alleged self-censorship, based on fear of "being labeled white supremacists and losing professional development and pay," has no basis in any policy the district "implemented or contemplated."

SLF rebutted Harpool's characterization of the training in its March 3 opposition to the district's motion for attorney's fees.

"At least" four staff members alleged they self-censored because speaking up would put "a target on their back" resulting in a "hostile work environment," and the chief equity and diversity officer explicitly said staff must "start the work of becoming antiracist educators" in order to "support these students," the filing said.

The case raised the unsettled question of "whether a school district can induce its employees to become couriers for its messages on anti-racism and equity," SLF argued. The district cannot meet its "high burden" to show the teachers "had no basis in law to bring such claims in such a novel context" or that any "single key fact" they alleged "was false or delusional."

Harpool's four-page order March 31 brushed past that argument, deeming the teachers' claims "frivolous."

They showed no injury, no compelled speech, ample freedom to criticize the district's message and "more importantly total lack of a factual basis for any sort of First Amendment claim," yet they "continued pursing [sic] their claims" following "extensive discovery," he wrote.

Letting them use the courts to litigate "frivolous political disagreement" would make "the management of a large, urban school district untenable," the judge said. The district has spent "significant time and tax dollars" on defense that "would have been better spent ensuring educational opportunities for students."

SLF's press release is packed with exhibits from the district training. Henderson and Lumley were "reminded that if they did not speak, they would be called upon," it says. "But when they did speak and express disagreement with the District, they were corrected," leading to inevitable self-censorship.

Harpool punished them for "courageously stepping forward to file one of the nation's first civil rights lawsuits tackling so-called 'anti-racism' training that requires educators to pledge allegiance to radical, unconstitutional views on race and politics," Hermann said.

If the 8th Circuit upholds the ruling, "teachers and parents will have no check against unlimited government power to violate free speech and equal protection rights — and they will be punished if they attempt to do so through our courts," she said.

The district did not answer two requests from Just the News seeking its explanation of how the teachers' claims were "frivolous" in light of the documented training materials and statements from administrators, including that teachers must "start the work of becoming antiracist educators" in order to support students.

Spokesperson Stephen Hall provided the district's March 7 and April 5 statements on Harpool's rulings. The district achieved a "significant, unequivocal legal victory" and expects "the appeal process will reach the same determination," while the attorney's fee award recognizes the money it spent on defense "would have been better spent on students."

Fighting the lawsuit and pursuing "appropriate reimbursement represents a broader commitment to defending itself against baseless attacks," the district said.

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