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Judge orders Francis Howell officials to stop censoring name of parents’ PAC at board meetings

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JEFFERSON CITY — A federal judge in St. Louis on Thursday told the Francis Howell School District to stop preventing speakers at its board meetings from mentioning a parents’ political action committee often opposed to district policies.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Clark issued a preliminary injunction barring the St. Charles County district from banning the plaintiffs’ use of the PAC’s name, “Francis Howell Families,” or the name of its website, “,” during public comment portions of board meetings.

The ruling demonstrates the plaintiffs’ fair chance of success in court, and the order will remain in effect pending a trial or further court action, Clark said.

Francis Howell Families supported the two conservative-backed candidates in the April 5 election, Randy Cook and Adam Bertrand, who won the two open seats on the Board of Education.

District officials had used a no-advertising policy to warn plaintiffs they would be stopped for mentioning “Francis Howell Families” and threatened to permanently ban the plaintiffs from speaking during the public comment portion of the meeting, Clark’s order said.

The three plaintiffs in the case — Christopher Brooks, Ken Gontarz and Katherine Rash — sued the district in February. Their petition said Brooks had his microphone cut off after mentioning the PAC’s website.

The plaintiffs said the district’s “selective enforcement” of the advertising policy amounted to “blatant unlawful viewpoint discrimination.”

The parents’ claims were evidenced by the “unique scrutiny” imposed on the Francis Howell Families members compared with other speakers, said Clark, who was named to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri by then-President Donald Trump and confirmed by the Senate in 2019 by a vote of 53-45.

His order said the district allowed one speaker to mention the group “Black Voices Matter” during the public comment period while mention of Francis Howell Families was banned.

Both Black Voices Matter and Francis Howell Families “are organizations with viewpoints on board actions, and both organizations call for policy changes,” the ruling said.

At another board meeting, a district official read an online comment aloud that referred to the commenter as a member of the “MNEA,” or Missouri National Education Association, a teachers union.

At its March 17 meeting, Clark wrote, “the board permitted several speakers to directly address not the board but audience members and to urge those listening to vote for certain school board candidates and against candidates associated with Francis Howell Families.

“These speakers overtly implored the audience to vote for their favored candidates — a direct affront to the board’s ‘no political campaigning’ policy — yet the board allowed the speakers to proceed, unabated,” the ruling said.

Clark also said the tone of the emails sent to the March 17 speakers “stands in contrast” to a warning received by the Francis Howell Families group.

A warning to one plaintiff said “future violations will result in your microphone being cut off and your time forfeited,” while an email to individuals speaking at the March 17 meeting said “I don’t want either of us to be in the position of having to cut off your time.”

Officials with the Francis Howell School District did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a statement last year, after state Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, criticized the policy, Jennifer Jolls, spokeswoman for the district, said the public comment period “is not an open forum for individuals to promote a political action committee or its website to others in attendance at the meeting or watching virtually.

“Such actions are prohibited by long-standing Board Policies,” she said.

One of the policies, Jolls said, states the “district will not accept any advertising relating to any political, religious or philosophical beliefs, positions or subject matters.”

“These policies, taken together, prohibit the promotion of a PAC on District property,” she said in November.

On Friday, Christofanelli said, “parents have been extremely frustrated with school boards that have adopted ridiculous policies like the one in place in Francis Howell that prohibited even the mention of an alternative viewpoint.”

The Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Free Speech is representing the plaintiffs in the case.

“The court saw what we all saw,” said Del Kolde, senior attorney for the Institute for Free Speech. “The board enforces one set of rules for its allies and another for its critics.

“This injunction was needed to ensure that every speaker is treated equally regardless of their viewpoint,” he said.

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