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Childers advises School Board Chair and Sheriff that meeting rules violate First Amendment rights

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

Attorney Jeff Childers has sent “cease and desist” demand letters to School Board Chair Leanetta McNealy and Sheriff Clovis Watson after Tayari Appiah was escorted out of the September 21 school board meeting for saying Superintendent Carlee Simon’s name.

The letter to McNealy starts: “It has come to my attention that you have, apparently, been forbidding citizens wishing to speak at the board at public comment from mentioning the ‘names’ of elected school board officials.” Childers says that policy is “in error. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution expressly protects the speech of citizens from public officials like yourself, especially when such speech is political and does not call for violence. Naming a publicly-elected official is not within any exception to the rights of citizens to criticize elected officials.”

Childers quotes New York Times vs. Sullivan: “… even though the utterance contains ‘half-truths’ and ‘misinformation’ … the same must be true of other government officials, such as elected city commissioners. Criticism of their official conduct does not lose its constitutional protection merely because it is effective criticism and hence diminishes their official reputations.”

The letter to Sheriff Watson says, “I am confident that the fine officers of the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office were unaware of the plain violation of citizens’ rights that occurred when they responded to Chair McNealy’s orders to remove the citizen(s). It is my hope that you will take this opportunity to provide some additional training to your officers on how to respond when public officials make unlawful requests that could create civil rights liability…”

The drama at the September 21 meeting began when Suzanne Kay spoke during public comment, alleging that Superintendent Simon is in breach of her contract. Kay repeatedly said Dr. Simon’s name, and McNealy can be heard saying, “Excuse me, Ms. Suzanne,” but Kay ignored her and kept talking. After Kay spoke, McNealy said to the next speaker, “You will not be calling any names, and deputy, I’m hoping that you’ll help me out here.”

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Later in the meeting Tayari Appiah spoke about the COVID-19 policies in Alachua County schools. He continued, “What are we to make of all this information? Number one, terminate Dr. Simon. She is more focused on politics than our children.”

McNealy interrupted, “Um, just a minute, just a minute. I asked you earlier to refrain. Please have a seat.” In fact, McNealy had not spoken to Appiah at any time in the meeting. Appiah responded, “Refrain from what? I’m not done, ma’am.” McNealy said, “Please have a seat.” As Appiah continued to speak, McNealy called out, “Deputy? Escort him out. Chief Hamilton? Help escort him to the door.” The deputy put his hand on Appiah’s back and escorted him outside.

Later in the meeting, however, Armando Grundy-Gomes repeatedly said names without being asked to stop [these are just excerpts of phrases in which he said names]: “One thing I want to start with, Chair McNealy, first thing, your phone systems are broke from the floor up… Number two, Chair McNealy, I guess we’re talking about how we enforce rules… So I’m looking at you, Chair McNealy… I appreciate all of you, I appreciate Mr. Hyatt as well… So Dr. Simon, start pushing back, stop sitting there being a punching bag.”

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