Missouri school district faces federal lawsuit from outspoken parent it banned from district property

As one Missouri school district resumes classes, it awaits a court date over a lawsuit filed last month by a parent who says he was banned from the school for being critical of the board.

In his…

As one Missouri school district resumes classes, it awaits a court date over a lawsuit filed last month by a parent who says he was banned from the school for being critical of the board.

In his formal complaint naming the Cameron R-1 School District and its board as defendants, Heath Gilbert, a Cameron, Missouri resident for nearly 13 years with one child currently in the school, says the district violated his First Amendment rights by restricting his free speech in a public forum by not allowing him access to Board of Education Meetings, where he planned to speak during public comment.

He also alleges the district banned him “in retaliation for his constitutionally protected speech”, saying, “Defendants knew of Gilbert’s criticisms, disapproved, and banned him shortly after he lodged those criticisms, preventing him from—among other things—speaking at open meetings of the Board of Education and becoming a candidate for the school board.”

According to the complaint, Gilbert had entered the district’s central office on Dec. 19 to pick up records he had requested through Missouri’s Sunshine Law. 

While there, he requested to view the agenda for that evening’s Board of Education meeting since schools are legally required to give public notice of such meetings. 

Missouri Revised Statute 610.020(1) states, “All public governmental bodies shall give notice of the time, date, and place of each meeting, and its tentative agenda … posting the notice on a bulletin board or other prominent place which is easily accessible to the public and clearly designated for that purpose at the principal office of the body holding the meeting.” 

However, his entire encounter was met with resistance from the moment he checked in with the receptionist to the moment he exited the building, according to the complaint. 

Upon asking to see the board’s meeting agenda, Gilbert was “told the agenda was ‘posted upstairs’ on the second floor of the building,” the complaint says. So Gilbert went up the stairs to find the agenda posted as detailed, but he was allegedly not allowed to read it without being supervised for the duration of his visit. 

After returning downstairs at the request of an assistant superintendent, Gilbert was told he must check in with reception during future visits before going upstairs. A school resource officer present at the scene also warned him failure to do so would lead to his arrest, the complaint says. 

Days later, Gilbert received a letter from Superintendent Matt Robinson, which alleged Gilbert had “violated procedures and policies regarding building visitors,” saying he “proceeded, without permission, past the reception area and Great Circle classrooms to the second floor of the building to view the Board of Education agenda,” his complaint reads. He was “asked to return to the reception area … but refused, and the school police had to be notified.” 

The letter also notified Gilbert that he was being banned from all school properties until March 1, 2023, and “any visits to school properties will be considered trespassing and law enforcement will be notified.” 

He was told he could request exceptions to the ban to attend open school board meetings, transport his child to and from school, or attend conferences concerning his student’s education, but that the superintendent is not obligated to make exceptions. 

In addition to the First Amendment violations, the suit alleges the district’s ban was a violation of due process under the law as “Procedural due process requires both notice and an opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and a meaningful manner” in response to his ban. The Dec. 19 letter did not “set out a process for contesting the ban, and Gilbert did not have any meaningful opportunity to contest the Ban.”

The Lion contacted the school district for comment but received no reply by time of publication. 

Gilbert has been attending Board of Education meetings since the middle of last year and has spoken during public comment several times, criticizing the district and the board. 

Cameron is located about 50 miles north of Kansas City and has a population of 9,000 people. The school district serves some 1,600 students. 

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court, Western District of Missouri, St. Joseph Division, and Judge Jill A. Morris is presiding. No court date has been set.