The Phoebe Prince case and the right to speak

Phoebe Prince

The tragic South Hadley bullying case has led to a federal lawsuit charging that a town official denied a local resident his First Amendment right to speak at a public meeting. Luke Gelinas, the father of two kids in the school system, was tossed out of an emotional South Hadley School Committee meeting on April 14. He has now filed a civil-rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court. The Republican of Springfield reports on the suit here, and the Boston Globe here.

Then-School Committee chairman Edward Boisselle reportedly ordered Gelinas to leave after Gelinas invoked the name of 15-year-old suicide victim Phoebe Prince, violating a ground rule Boisselle had set. Gelinas was escorted out of the meeting room by two police officers.

The offending statement (pdf) that Gelinas delivered that night is a model of respectful decorum. In it, he called for the removal, resignation or censure of Boisselle, school superintendent Gus Sayer and high school principal Daniel Smith.

According to The Republican, at the April 28 School Committee meeting Gelinas was back, and apparently none too happy about his treatment two weeks earlier. He compared Boisselle — no longer the chairman — to Joseph Goebbels and Joseph Stalin. Shortly thereafter the ACLU sent a letter to the committee complaining Gelinas’ First Amendment rights had been violated at the April 14 meeting.

In June, Luke and Lorraine Gelinas and a third parent, Darby O’Brien sued the School Committee in Hampshire Superior Court, claiming the committee broke the state’s open-meeting law by approving a two-year contract extension for superintendent Sayer in executive session on Feb. 24.

The newly filed federal suit names Boisselle and the two police officers as defendants, but not the School Committee itself.

It’s hard to pass judgment on this without knowing the personalities involved and what, if any, attempts were made to settle this beforehand. But if Boisselle and company could have made this go away with a public apology, then they missed an opportunity that may not come around again.

And if Gelinas had simply been allowed to read his statement on April 14, it may never have occurred to him to compare Boisselle to a couple of genocidal monsters.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

One thought on “The Phoebe Prince case and the right to speak

  1. There may be other issues at play here, and I am not a lawyer, but from reading this post and the related Republican story, I don’t know that they have a case.

    In Dedham, the School Committee voted to amend the Superintendent’s contract after it was revealed that she pulled two special education teachers out of their classrooms and sent them to the home of a School Committee member to give the member’s son private tutoring. In the executive session they added an indemnity clause so that the town would pick up the legal bill should she get sued. They never announced the change in open session, and didn’t vote on the minutes of the executive session until I requested them months later.

    I asked the DA to investigate whether or not a breach of the Open Meeting Law took place. Gerry Leone ruled that while some boards and committees do revote or announce contract changes in open session, nothing requires them to do so. Sadly, I think this is just one more example of the inadequacies of our open meeting law.

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