Kansas resident removed from board meeting wins First Amendment case against school board member

(The Sentinel) – In a victory for free speech rights, a federal jury recently sided with Olathe resident Jennifer Gilmore who was removed from an Olathe Board of Education meeting in…

(The Sentinel) – In a victory for free speech rights, a federal jury recently sided with Olathe resident Jennifer Gilmore who was removed from an Olathe Board of Education meeting in 2022.

Gilmore, who ran for a seat on the Olathe Board of Education in 2021 and lost by 65 votes, was awarded $1 by the jury.

The Kansas City Star reports that after a four-day trial earlier this week, a jury found that her First Amendment rights were violated when she was prevented from speaking during the meeting last year when then-president of the board Joe Beveridge disliked her views.

The award comes after the Olathe school district spent some $300,000 on attorney’s fees.

“The Board majority sought to cover up Beveridge’s wrongdoing by spending over $300,000 and counting of the taxpayer’s dollars in this lawsuit,” Gilmore’s attorney, Linus Baker, said in a statement. “In the end, the board majority spent $300,000 to avoid paying Ms. Gilmore one dollar.”

The Star article states the “jury did not find that punitive damages should be assessed against Beveridge. In order to find that Beveridge should pay damages to Gilmore, the jury would have needed to agree there was proof he acted with evil motive or intent, or reckless indifference to her rights, according to court documents.”

U.S. District Judge Holly Teeter had previously denied Gilmore’s attempt to ask for damages against the district and school board, but the $1 in nominal damages acknowledges that her rights were violated.

The background

In the fall of 2021, Gilmore was running for a seat on the board, campaigning partly against mask mandates and critical race theory, but was narrowly defeated by Julie Steele — who earlier this year suggested parents who are critical of “diversity, equity and inclusion” training should leave Kansas.

Gilmore attended the January 2022 Board of Education meeting, where new board members were to be sworn in.

During the public comment section, she stated, “Good evening. I didn’t buy my board seat, but I’m still here because I care about this district.“

Beveridge started to interrupt her at that point but let her continue.

Gilmore then said: “We were told prior to enrollment that masks would be optional. We’re doing the same thing year after year. I agree that liars lie, but the only liar that lied in this election was Jim Randall.”

Randall, who is a former Olathe City Council member, is Steele’s father and Beveridge’s father-in-law.

Beveridge, at this point, cut Gilmore off and said, “Ok, you’re done,” and asked to have her removed, stating she was “done talking” and that she had mentioned a person.

The Star reports that at this point, Gilmore said: “Your father-in-law … that spent $37,000 for her (Steele’s) board seat?” Gilmore replied to Beveridge,” and noted that “Steele raised nearly double the amount that Gilmore did leading up to the 2021 election, reporting about $60,000 in contributions, more than half coming from loans Steele made to her own campaign.”

The board’s public comment rule at the time said the board would not hear “personal attacks or rude or defamatory remarks of any kind about any employee or student of the School District or any person connected with the School District.”

The policy also allowed the board president to interrupt any comments that were “not germane to the business of the board.”

A new policy, adopted in April of 2022, retains the “germane” language but omits the language about personal or defamatory remarks.

Earlier this summer, Teeter threw out most of the claims by Gilmore in denying — in part — a request for summary judgment.

Teeter dismissed the claims against the board and the district and also dismissed — as moot — Gilmore’s claim against the revised policy for lack of standing, as it was not in force at the time Gilmore was removed from the meeting. 

However, Teeter let stand Gilmore’s primary claim, saying a jury could reasonably conclude her First Amendment rights had been violated because she had been blocked from speaking because of her views.

Teeter had also said in court documents a reasonable jury might conclude Beveridge “acted in anger” because of Gilmore’s criticism of his father-in-law rather than because of board policy.

The judge and both parties did agree that a board meeting is what is called in law a “limited public forum” where government can put reasonable restrictions on speech, so long as they are not being used to prevent viewpoints from being expressed. The jury found Beveridge did engage in viewpoint discrimination against Gilmore simply because he disliked or did not want to hear her opinion.