Hinsdale Township High School District 86 Settles Federal Civil Rights & Open Meetings Act Lawsuit

Board of Education Agrees to Critical Reforms

CHICAGO – Community members who were physically prevented from making comments critical of Hinsdale High School District 86’s Board of Education’s sweeping curriculum changes during a December 2019 public meeting have reached agreement with the current board. Last night the board voted to approve settlement of the federal First Amendment and Illinois Open Meetings Act lawsuit against it and its former President, Nancy Pollak.

Under a vague policy allegedly promoting “civility” and preventing any public commentary about particular personnel, the board abruptly cut off compelling commentary by community members at the December 12, 2019 Board meeting.  The commentary referenced public comments made by Assistant Superintendent for Academics Dr. Carol Baker at her home school district’s public board meeting opposing her home school district’s plans to cut course offerings contrary to her proposed plan in District 86.  The speakers had attempted to object to proposed sweeping curriculum changes in the sciences which eliminate Hinsdale Central’s nationally ranked science program with choices geared to students’ different interests and ability levels, and instead impose a rigid single sequence with fewer opportunities for every student.

In response, on February 7, 2020, Plaintiffs Dr. Meeta Patel, Kara Kuo and Kim Notaro sued the Board. On February 19, 2020, Plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction to block the Board’s unconstitutional practices.  The motion noted that under United State Supreme Court precedent, “The right of an American citizen to criticize public officials and policies . . . is the central meaning of the First Amendment.”

Last night, the Board majority voted 5-1 to approve a settlement agreement.  Under the terms of the settlement, the Board

“acknowledges that under the First Amendment and Open Meetings Act, Meeta Patel, Kara Kuo and Kim Notaro should have been allowed to read Dan Levinthal’s letter at the 12/12/2019 Board meeting” and has agreed to allow them to read the letter at a future Board meeting.  The Board has also agreed to “permit the public to make comments at future Board meetings critical of specific public officials or employees subject only to the well-established restrictions under the First Amendment, such as the restrictions on fighting words, true threats, obscenity, or incitements to imminent violence.” 

The settlement provides for a First Amendment expert, Maryam Judar of the Citizen Advocacy Center, to provide a training session for the Board and the general public at a future Board meeting.  The parties have agreed to ongoing jurisdiction by the federal court to ensure compliance with the agreement. 

Despite these clearly articulated terms, prior to voting against the settlement agreement, Board President Camden continued to show disdain and disrespect towards community members’ First Amendment right to comment, question or criticize public school officials and employees. While voting in support of the agreement, board members Keith Chval and Erik Held stated that they supported the board president’s position and were only voting “yes” to make the lawsuit go away.

“In light of the apparent misunderstanding of the First Amendment shown by three of the board members at last night’s meeting, it is obvious that this board is in dire need of the First Amendment education required under the terms of the settlement agreement,” said lead Plaintiff Dr. Patel. 

“The public has a right under the First Amendment and Illinois’ Open Meeting Act to criticize public officials and this lawsuit served to uphold that critical right,” said Josh Burday of civil rights firm Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law, which represents the Plaintiffs. “In light of their behavior at last night’s public meeting, it’s shocking that public officials would show such contempt for the constitutional rights and laws such as the Open Meetings Act that they’re bound to uphold.”

The Plaintiffs have issued the following statement about the settlement:

“We, the Plaintiffs, in our efforts to advocate for our children and the Community at large, had our constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech trampled by a D86 Board of Education who counters advocacy with assault, meets dissent with disdain, and assails pleadings for insight and explanation with provocative and resolute arrogance.  The Board, after proactively violating our constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech, added insult to injury by asserting that by standing up for what is right, we were somehow doing a disservice to the community

“We are hopeful that despite the commentary made by Board President Camden at last night’s meeting, the community will understand that the fault for the lawsuit lies entirely with the members of the Board, three of whom are practicing attorneys. As everyone who has followed this case knows, after former Board President Pollak ordered the microphone stripped from the first public speaker at the December board meeting, she goaded the three Plaintiffs to file a complaint if they didn’t like it.

“This Board’s actions were and continue to be destructive not only to their own legitimacy and legacy, but also to the community at large. The message sent as the Administration, directed by the Board to physically and forcefully remove the microphone from citizens exercising their First Amendment rights, was that dissent will not be tolerated, and will perhaps even be met with force and intimidation. 

“While that may sound dramatic, it is the reality, and it is wrong. When the violation occurred, every board member had the ability to speak up and right the wrong, but not one did. The implicit message they sent to our community, especially its youth, was the polar opposite of civic mindedness and responsibility that school officials in particular should model.  

“This community has had, and will continue to have many controversial issues, but we, the Plaintiffs, feel that our efforts in opposing the dishonorable way with which the Board conducted itself in this matter will result in the community being more confident that their voice will at least be heard in the future, which is the first step in being understood.”

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