November 16, 2021
Two Virginia moms who were silenced by the Fairfax County school district won a resounding victory in court this morning when a judge upheld their First Amendment rights and struck down the district’s unconstitutional attempts to shut down their speech.
“This is an important victory against the bullying tactics of school bureaucrats who have resorted to intimidation and harassment of parents who just want to do what’s best for their children,” said Timothy Sandefur, the Goldwater Institute attorney representing the pair.
Fairfax County mothers Debra Tisler and Callie Oettinger wanted to know how their school district was spending taxpayer dollars, especially given that the county has been in national news about its recent legal troubles. Debra filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out how much the district was paying for its legal bills, and after the Board turned over 1,300 pages of documents, Callie posted some of them on her website specialeducationaction.com, after deleting any potentially confidential information.
Incredibly, the simple act of publishing public information online provoked a backlash from the school district, which sued Debra and Callie, demanding that they destroy the documents, remove them from their website, and replace them with heavily censored substitute documents. The reason: The district realized that the documents were embarrassing to school officials who have spent outrageous amounts of taxpayer money for legal representation and have been careless with private student information in the past.
Unfortunately, this case is just one of the latest examples of public school bureaucrats attacking parents for daring to ask questions about how tax dollars are being used and what is being taught in schools. But with the Goldwater Institute’s help, parents are fighting back. Represented by Sandefur and by Virginia attorney Ketan Bhirud of the firm Troutman Pepper, the two mothers argued that the Board’s demand contradicted the First Amendment, which protects the right of all citizens to publish documents they legally obtain from the government. To bar the two from publishing the information was a “prior restraint,” which the Supreme Court has said is virtually never constitutional.
In today’s ruling the Fairfax County Circuit Court agreed. Declaring the school board’s actions “about as much a prior restraint as there ever could be,” the court refused to censor Oettinger’s website. The Board’s arguments that the information was secret, the court said, were “simply not relevant” and “almost frivolous.”
“We followed the law and asked to see documents we have a right to see,” Tisler said. “And Callie was careful never to publish any student names or anything like that. Yet the Board went after us because they wanted to make an example of us. Well, the example is that parents have constitutional rights and the school boards their tax dollars pay for should respect those rights.”
The court also withdrew a September 30 order that barred the two mothers from disseminating the information they received—despite the fact that the documents in question were published on a different website two days before, and have all been available this entire time.
“This case is yet another example of Fairfax County abusing its power and wasting taxpayer money,” Oettinger said. “Debra and I never published any publicly identifiable information about students or school employees. We have always been much more careful with that information than the School Board—yet the Board sued us! Today, a judge agreed, ruled in our favor, and upheld our First Amendment rights.”
In addition to defending parents in court against extreme attacks by public school officials, the Goldwater Institute has developed an Academic Transparency law to ensure that parents know what is being taught in the classroom, including politically charged subjects like Critical Race Theory. Under Goldwater’s law, public schools are required to disclose to parents and the public a listing of the actual materials making their way in front of students in K-12.