Berkeley residents file suit against school board chair claiming violation of rights
The former school board member who was banned from talking about the state's investigation of the Berkeley County School District filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against the chairman of the board, claiming his free speech rights were violated.
“I did not want to file this lawsuit, and I personally and publicly asked the chairman to reconsider his ill-advised decision to prevent public debate and criticism,” said Terry Hardesty, who served on the board from 2006 to 2010. “I gave him every chance to avoid this lawsuit.”
Hardesty and Berkeley County residents Linda Riney and Nancy Corbin filed the suit Thursday in Charleston against school board Chairman Kent Murray, individually and in his official capacity, for violations of First and 14th Amendment rights.
Murray said he had not seen the suit and could not comment.
“I'd love to give you a comment,” he said. “I just haven't seen anything to comment on. Until I see it, it's impossible to comment.”
The suit claims Murray unilaterally changed the board's “Public Participation in Board Meetings” policy without a vote or notice, in violation of the state Freedom of Information Act.
The policy was amended before the June 11 meeting to include a ban on comments about the State Law Enforcement Division's investigation into alleged ethics violations during last year's $198 million Yes 4 Schools campaign because the investigation “is ongoing and confidential, and because matters connected to the investigation may come before the Board for action.”
Murray later said he was the one who altered the card, an act he said was “within my discretion and is consistent with district policy and law.”
The suit says Hardesty's planned comments June 11, when he was stopped from talking, “did not run afoul of the past policy,” but Murray “gaveled him down, embarrassed him, and personally would not let him proceed with his public remarks.”
After Hardesty threatened legal action in a June 20 letter to Murray, Murray allowed speakers to address the issue at Tuesday's meeting “to minimize the disruption of the meeting and to avoid unnecessary legal costs.”
He added, “I wish to remind any speakers who make comments publicly, however, they are personally responsible for what they say,” a comment some in the audience said they took as a threat.
Hardesty, Riney and Corbin each addressed the board that night.
“It sounded to me like he threatened me,” Hardesty said. “It's probably worse in my view to intimidate people not to talk rather than just to cut off debate.”
Riney, who said joining the lawsuit was a “last straw,” agreed.
“Intimidation with the goal of stopping public speech at a public meeting with elected officials is just as bad as what they did to Terry Hardesty, denying him the ability to speak,” she said. “If a lawsuit is the only way to make an impression and stop this arrogance, then so be it.”
Corbin said she joined the suit because she also felt intimidated. “I just don't hold well with intimidation, so I feel like it's time that something needs to be done,” she said.
The goal is to have Murray's actions and the policy declared unconstitutional, said Columbia-based lawyer Robert Goings, who represents the trio with Charleston lawyer Josh Whitley.
“We are fighting to remedy these obvious and outrageous constitutional violations,” he said. “Our immediate goal is to have this conduct by defendant Murray stopped. It is the responsibility of citizens to hold public officials accountable. The chairman cannot silence his critics.”
The suit also asks for compensatory and punitive damages, which Whitley said “is the only way to remedy constitutional wrongs. It also is intended to discourage persons from violating constitutional rights. Without monetary damages, there is not much incentive to follow the law.”
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or facebook.com/brindge.