ELLSWORTH — A local woman upset with how she was treated at an Aug. 12 School Board meeting filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Bangor on Aug. 27.
Gwendolyn J. Clark claims the School Board and Vice Chairwoman Abigail T. Miller violated her First Amendment rights and named both as defendants in the suit. She seeks a judgment that Miller and the School Board did violate her First Amendment rights; a court injunction against further violation of her First Amendment rights; “compensatory or nominal” damages; and attorney fees.
Portland-based Drummond Woodsum represents the school department, with attorneys Elek Miller (no relation to Abigail Miller) and Melissa Hewey handling the lawsuit.
“We don’t believe the case has merit, and we will vigorously defend it,” Elek Miller said.
Initially, Clark posed three questions regarding student masks and critical race theory (CRT) during the public comment portion of a July 13 meeting. The board answered her questions. Next, on Aug. 12, Clark again addressed the board during public comments, alleging Board Vice Chairwoman Miller “lied to my face” on whether critical race theory is taught in Ellsworth schools and that the board had held illegal meetings.
At that point, Chairwoman Kelly McKenney cut her off.
Later during the public comments—an emotionally charged time when many parents spoke against mask requirements for students—citizens repeatedly interrupted another citizen at the podium, who then sat down. As board members admonished the public, Clark shouted out, “I have a question,” but was not recognized by the board, which was still talking. She continued to call out and was then escorted out by a member of the Ellsworth Police Department.
According to school policy on public participation at School Board meetings, the chairman is responsible for recognizing all speakers, and speakers are not permitted to make defamatory comments or use abusive or vulgar language. In addition, the chairman must give approval for citizens to address other board members or the superintendent.
The policy also states, “The Chair has the authority to stop any presentation that violates these guidelines or the privacy rights of others” and “Persons who disrupt the meeting may be asked to leave, and the Chair may request law enforcement assistance as necessary to restore order.”
Clark’s complaint alleges “upon information and belief” that the board request for a police presence at the Aug. 12 meeting was based on Clark’s line of questioning at the July 13 meeting, and “presents a chilling effect on the exercise of the Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights as well as other members of the public who desire to speak before the school board.”
Clark referred all questions to Bangor attorney Brett D. Baber of Lanham Blackwell & Baber, who is representing her in the case.
“When she rose to ask a question, the School Board motioned the police into action and they escorted her out, in my view,” Baber told The American Sept. 3, adding, “Board policies have to yield to the First Amendment.”
Further, Baber stated, “Accusations against public officials is fundamental to the First Amendment. If you run for office, you’re a public official and you have to be able to withstand public scrutiny.”
The meeting that Clark alleged was illegal while speaking at the Aug. 12 board meeting was a July 14 board retreat. The retreat date and location were stated at June 22 and July 13 meetings. The American asked Superintendent Dan Higgins whether the retreat had been publicly posted. Maine law requires notice of public meetings be given “in ample time to allow public attendance.”
“The school department takes its obligations very seriously,” Higgins responded. “We do our best to be open and transparent about all of our public business, and to let the public know what we are doing and when we are doing it.
In addition to her lawsuit, Clark filed a request under the Maine public records law, Freedom of Access Act, on June 13, for “Any and all correspondence, meeting minutes, training sessions and materials involving School Board members, administrators and teachers in reference to and including records and materials of: curriculum and training of the 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory, Cultural Response Training, Social Emotional Learning Training, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training. Grant applications and Awards surrounding this training for the school years 2019 thru (sic) present.”
Clark received the records shortly after the Aug. 12 board meeting and said, “It proves CRT has been taught in our schools last fall,” adding “there are 81 different names” the training can fall under.
Some staff and School Board members attended the Cultural Competence Institute presented by the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine School Superintendents Association. The program has stated goals of “developing a deep understanding of creating a culture of inclusion” and “creating a sustainable practice for diversity, equity and inclusion in our schools,” among others.
As for critical race theory, school officials say it’s not taught in local schools.
“People attribute things to us that just aren’t what we do,” Superintendent Higgins said in an earlier interview. “CRT isn’t part of our curriculum, and it isn’t what we do.”
While the lawsuit does not specifically address illegal meetings and CRT, it references that Clark raised both allegations to the board.
Baber said his office is in the process of serving court papers to the board and Miller. Following that, a date to appear in federal court in Bangor will be set.