School district sues parent over blog posts


You know, the obnoxious parent who stands up at every school board meeting, making the same boring point week after week, month after month, finally slipping into accusations about the ethical behavior of the board members and administrators who do not jump to the parent’s wishes — yeah, that one.

She’s a thorn in the side of any district governing board, but often enough correct about new policies, and sometimes in exposing wrongdoing, that most boards tolerate the barbs and try to fix the problems legitimately pointed out.

But what if the parent “thorn” has a blog?

The drama unfolded in Galveston; as of right now, it looks as though the district will back down from its threat after the blogger held fast; surely this will not be the last of such stories we see.

The school district in Galveston, Texas, threatened to sue a parent for views expressed on her blog. It alleged libel. Slashdot had one of the earliest rundowns, including the fatal flaw in the district’s complaint and how it tried to deal with it:

“A Texas School District is threatening to sue a parent over what it terms ‘libelous material’ or other ‘legally offensive’ postings on her web site and are demanding their removal. Web site owner Sandra Tetley says they’re just opinions. The legal firm sending the demand cited 16 items, half posted by Tetley, the rest by anonymous commentators to her blog. The alleged libelous postings ‘accuse Superintendent Lynne Cleveland, trustees and administrators of lying, manipulation, falsifying budget numbers, using their positions for “personal gain,” violating the Open Meetings Act and spying on employees, among other things.’ The problem for the district is that previous courts have ruled that governments can’t sue for libel. So now, in a follow-up story, the lawyers say the firm ‘would file a suit on behalf of administrators in their official capacities and individual board members. The suit, however, would be funded from the district’s budget.’ So far, Tetley hasn’t backed down, although she said she’ll ‘consult with her attorneys before deciding what, if anything, to delete.’”

The site is dedicated to watching the Galveston Independent School District, GISD Watch, by concerned parent Sandra Tetley.

According to the Galveston Daily News:

[David]Feldman [of the district's law firm, Feldman and Rogers,] said Tetley’s Web site — www.gisdwatch.com — contained the most “personal, libelous invective directed toward a school administrator” he’s seen in his 31-year career.

“It is not the desire of the School District, the Board, or this Firm to stifle free expression or inhibit robust debate regarding matters pertaining to the operation of the public schools,” Feldman wrote in the demand letter. “This is solely about the publication of materials that clearly go beyond that which is legally and constitutionally encouraged and permitted, and into the realm of what is legally offensive and actionable.”

Feldman cited 16 examples of what he says are libelous postings. Half were posted by Tetley; the other half were posted by anonymous users.

The postings accuse Superintendent Lynne Cleveland, trustees and administrators of lying, manipulation, falsifying budget numbers, using their positions for “personal gain,” violating the Open Meetings Act and spying on employees, among other things.

Tetley said the postings were opinions only.

“Everyone deserves to have their opinion,” she said. “I don’t think they have a right to make me, or anyone else, take down criticisms of them off the Web site. They’re not going to force us to take off our opinions because we have no other place to go.”

The Drudge Report posted a story about the case, attracting 64,000 viewers. Tetley hired Galveston attorney Tony Buzbee, who has had great success suing institutions in Galveseton. Buzzee warned the district that his client would strongly fight against any suit filed against her.

As of November 10, district Superintendent Lynn Cleveland said the district would probably drop legal action, to focus on delivering education to students.

Quite a drama in two or three weeks. Press freedom won out.

On the one hand, no one likes to be sued for libel. On the other hand, Ms. Tetley knows the school district’s leaders are paying attention to what she says.

What’s the moral of this story?

Tip of the old scrub brush to Pamela Bumsted, who alerted me to this by e-mail.

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10 Responses to School district sues parent over blog posts

  1. Joan Graves says:

    Reblogged this on Stand Up Clark County and commented:
    I may be the “obnoxious parent” but that doesn’t make me wrong.

    Like this

  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Thanks for the update.

    Like this

  3. Snowqueen says:

    An investigation conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, in my opinion, has vindicated the parents.
    The Agora board of trustees have stepped down. The school’s managment contract with Ms. Brown has been severed.

    “The state also contended that Agora had failed to meet generally accepted financial and auditing standards, and maintained that its board was dominated by people who were Brown’s relatives, worked at three other charter schools she founded in Philadelphia, or served on the boards of those schools.”

    “Cynwyd Group was due to be paid $2.8 million from Agora’s $41 million budget during the last academic year, but the state contended that most of the management work was performed by another company, K12 Pennsylvania L.L.C.”

    “Agora’s finances are the subject of a federal criminal investigation and a probe by the Philadelphia School District’s inspector general. The board’s action and the settlement will not affect those investigations.”

    http://www.philly.com/inquirer/education/64193462.html

    I beleive the lawsuit against the parents has yet to be dropped.

    Like this

  4. Pennsylvania Parent says:

    The Philadelphia Inquirer is covering it.

    The parents group had a site where they have posted their grievances….

    http://www.agoraresources.net

    Look at the responses from the president of the board of trustees under the “correspondences” tab. Its very unprofessional if you ask me.

    He said “The groups activities were mean spirited and occasionally racist.”

    When did asking for lawful information from a public school become a racial matter? Something is definitely fishy here. Why not just give the parents what they have asked for. In the mean time my PA school taxes went up again.

    Like this

  5. Pennsylvania Parent says:

    Pennsylvania PUBLIC charter school sues parents for asking questions about foscal accountability and management structure.

    http://www.philly.com/inquirer/education/20090209_Cyber_charter_suit_raises_free-speech_questions.html

    Like this

  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Got a link to the case?

    Which newspaper is covering it best?

    Like this

  7. Pennsylvania Parent says:

    There is an almost identical case unfolding now in the state of Pennsylvania!

    A Dr. June Hairston-Brown, a founder of the Agora Cyber Charter School, along with her Management Company, Cynwyd LLC, are suing a group of concerned parents and The Agora Parent Organization for blogging in a Yahoo group about their concerns.

    This is terrible situation and the taxpayers are the ones who will ultimately lose.

    Like this

  8. Ed Darrell says:

    And when administrators say false stuff about parents, they get fired? There is this idea we generally work with that ideas should be discussed, and that falsehoods should be dealt with by discussion of what the facts are.

    Like this

  9. Sean R Kursawe says:

    I think it’s great that parents would start blogs critiquing us as administrators. We could get more feedback from those who do not want to stand up in front of an audience at a board meeting. Any critique is good critique, but if the blogger is posting false information it should be shut down.

    Sean R. Kursawe

    Like this

  10. [...] distinctively named blog, Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, has this post about how a Texas school district threatened to sue a district parent for libel.  Apparently, the [...]

    Like this

Play nice in the Bathtub -- don't splash soap in anyone's eyes.

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