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Court to Reconsider Free Speech in Public Meetings

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

You can't say bomb in an airport -- Ben Stiller learned when protesting treatment by airline representatives.

And you can't say, "some of my friends have guns," as John Barna should have learned protesting school board actions. "I may have to come after all of yours," he added in a sequel.

That earned him expulsion from Panther Valley School Board meetings, and he responded with a First Amendment lawsuit. His case was dismissed, but the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals said it is not over yet.

Banned From Public Meetings

In Barna v. Board of School Directors of the Panther Valley School District, Barna said school officials violated his rights by banning him from public board meetings.

Barna said his "gun' comment was a joke. He also apologized for saying he would "come after" the board members. And although he challenged a board member to a fight on another occasion, he admitted that he was "just mad."

After a couple of other incidents, the board banned him from meetings and from being on campus. He sued, but a district court said the board and officials were immune.

On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed in part, vacated and remanded in part.

Qualified Immunity

The appeals court affirmed a summary judgment in favor of individual district representatives. However, the judges reversed the judgment as to the board and the members in their official capacities.

The panel said the district court's ruling contravened Owen v. City of Independence, which held that municipalities have no qualified immunity in such cases. The Third Circuit did not take a position on the viability of Barna's claims, but said the trial court should reconsider the board's liability.

"We will vacate the District Court's order granting summary judgment to the Panther Valley School Board and the individual officials in their official capacities and will remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion," the appellate court said.

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