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A group of Georgia mothers has been trying to get certain library books banned by reading sexually graphic passages aloud at school board meetings. Now, after the board barred one of the mothers from attending, the group is claiming in a federal lawsuit that their First Amendment rights have been violated.

In essence, members of the group, which has dubbed itself the Mama Bears, are arguing that they’re being censored — in their own pursuit of censorship.

At a February school board meeting in Forsyth County, Georgia, Mama Bears member Alison Hair wanted to draw attention to a book that was available at her son’s middle school library, according to the lawsuit. Turning to a page from “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel about a 9-year-old boy whose father was killed in the 9/11 attacks, Hair began to read: “I know that you give someone a blow job by putting your penis …”

That’s as far as she made it before Board of Education Chair Wesley McCall cut her off. He reminded her of “the rules that we talked about in the beginning” of the meeting concerning the board’s policy about “profane comments.” He also let her know that “we understand your point” and stated that the district already has a vetting system in place “so these books are not read out loud to students.”

Hair continued to try to speak during her allotted three minutes, asking that she be given back the time that McCall spent interrupting her. “Here’s what I’m here to tell you,” she said. “I am here to confront evil.”

McCall cut her off again: “Your time is up.”

Hair returned to the Forsyth School Board meeting the following month, again attempting to read from a book and again getting cut off. The board later sent her a letter banning her from school board meetings until she agreed to follow board policies: “It was clear that your intent was not to comment to the Board in the public forum but was to disrupt the meeting of the Board of Education to draw attention to yourself and your beliefs.”

Taking it to court

The lawsuit, filed in late July by the Institute for Free Speech on behalf of Hair, Mama Bears of Forsyth County, and Mama Bears Chair Cindy Martin, claims that “the Forsyth County School Board, embarrassed by debate about its choices, has gone so far as to silence and banish from its meetings any parent who simply reads aloud from its schools’ library books.”

Del Kolde, a senior attorney with the Institute for Free Speech Institute who’s representing the plaintiffs, said of the lawsuit: “It’s not about censoring the books. It’s about reading from the books in a public setting. We don’t see any irony.”

“To me, the irony is if you’re putting books in the system, why can I not read them in a public setting?” Hair told ProPublica. “But again, this is not about books. This is about my right to speak to the school board about concerns that we have regarding our children.”

According to Kevin Goldberg, an attorney and First Amendment specialist with the nonprofit free-speech advocacy group Freedom Forum, “There’s at least some merit to the suit. The premise is valid.” (Forsyth County Schools Chief Communications Officer Jennifer Caracciolo said the district and school board could not comment on pending litigation; individual school board members did not respond to requests for comment.)

Goldberg points out that “the First Amendment provides a right for parents to petition.” And he notes that “the suit is not the first of its kind and likely won’t be the last, because it has legs.”

Breaking down the complaint

Below, Goldberg provides commentary on the lawsuit. ProPublica has provided relevant excerpts from the suit to give some additional context to Goldberg’s analysis.

Lawsuit: Plaintiffs — mothers who wish to protect their young children from Defendants’ questionable choices — want to exercise their right to criticize the placement of pornographic books in school libraries by accurately reading those books aloud at public meetings. The books’ language, after all, best illustrates why the parents contend the books are inappropriate for school. Plaintiffs want to read these books aloud because they want to elicit in these elected officials, and in their fellow citizens participating in the debate, the same emotions that struck them when they first read these words; embarrassment and motivation to action. They want their audience, including elected board officials, to hear the jarring, unsettling, and sexually graphic words in their original medium. If Plaintiffs cannot read these excerpts, then the power of their message is lost, indeed, the message itself is censored.

Goldberg: Parents have a right — and frankly, we want them to have a right — to be able to speak during these meetings. They also have a right to speak as they want to speak, and that right should be very broad. That’s why I think this case has some merit.

Lawsuit: At the February 15, 2022, school board meeting, Defendant McCall adopted the practice of opening every Public Comment period by purporting to read from the Public Participation Policy though he added language that cannot be found in the policy. This spoken variation of the policy adds a new category of things the boards can censor: A reading from something “inappropriate.”

We want to remind our citizens that public participation is to present issues or concerns to the Board” [the lawsuit quotes McCall as saying] “but in doing so we do not allow profane comments or comments which involve inappropriate public subjects. If your comments include anything that you might read tonight is … inappropriate to being stated in public you will be instructed to stop.

Goldberg: The policy as written is problematic, I think, from a First Amendment point of view. But certainly when you go off script, it raises a host of First Amendment problems, primarily because it tends to be vague.

The biggest problem with vagueness is that I don’t know how to moderate or calculate my speech, which means I’m likely to self-censor to not get in trouble. That is a clear First Amendment violation.

Vagueness also leads to selective enforcement. What we end up seeing here is one side being told to be quiet because they’re being inappropriate or disruptive.

Lawsuit: Protecting the innocence of Forsyth County’s children is central to Mama Bears and its members. Barring the availability of pornographic materials in school libraries is among the group’s chief concerns. …

The Mama Bears have identified over one hundred books they believe are inappropriate.

Goldberg: A stated purpose of their exercising their First Amendment right in this issue is to bar the availability of pornographic materials in school libraries. But pornography is protected by the First Amendment, and there’s no clear evidence that any of these materials are actually pornographic.

The First Amendment right of the parents is absolutely necessary for them to speak, to be a part of the process. It’s what makes the process work. It’s what helps us come to a final decision. But the parents should not be making that decision. The parents should not be imposing that decision. And that’s my real concern, that when they are imposing their decisions, their preferences on everybody else, we run into another First Amendment problem. They are now seeking to use the process to restrict the First Amendment rights of other parents.

Lawsuit: On March 17, 2022 Wes McCall sent Hair a letter banning her from attending future public meetings until she provided a guarantee in writing that she would follow the public participation rules and his directives. …

Though Hair did not attend any meetings after March 15, on May 11, 2022, the full FCS Board sent Hair a second letter, signed by each individual defendant Board member, confirming that she is banned from attending public meetings.

Goldberg: I would hope that they [the school board members] would be pushing to keep as many of these books in the library as possible, but they are at the same time shutting down speech.

Cohen v. California was a really fun and interesting case from the Supreme Court that was decided about 50 years ago. It’s best known as the “fuck the draft” case, where the guy wears the jacket in the L.A. County Courthouse that says “fuck the draft” on the back.

The court said, look, I mean, one man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric. If you don’t like it, avert your eyes. We do not think that the mere presence of bad words is sufficient to punish somebody.

Well, I think that applies here. If you can use the words “fuck the draft” in a courthouse, you can use them in a school board meeting.

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Nicole Carr/ProPublica

Nicole Carr is a reporter focusing on criminal justice and racial inequity for ProPublica's South unit.