“Do something with that idiot over there….”

Gerry Monroe had some harsh things to say at the Houston ISD board meeting in April, 2019. His colorful presentation to the school board concluded with this:

Do something with that idiot over there. This is the mandate: Either you take her out or I’m going to take her out. 

The alleged “idiot” was an HISD principal.  The 5th Circuit is not sure that the words “or I’m going to take her out” amounted to a “true threat.”  Therefore, the court sent the case back to the district court for a determination of that issue—true threat?  Or just strong words?

Context is important.  Mr. Monroe’s comments were offered at the April meeting.  The district then sought to bar him from attending its December meeting. That’s when he sued. The effort to silence him in advance of the December meeting is what the law calls a “prior restraint.”  Cutting off a speaker who is threatening or out of control as they speak is one thing—cutting them off in advance is another.  It’s a “prior restraint” which is extremely difficult to justify.  However, it could be justified if the speaker has uttered a “true threat.”

In this decision, the Circuit Court faulted the lower court for not being specific about the “true threat” analysis. Key Quote:

But it [referring to the lower court] does not articulate what speech or conduct of Monroe reached the level of a true threat.  If no statement or action did, then HISD would be restraining Monroe from speaking at a public meeting based on the content of his speech or his viewpoint.

Perhaps Monroe’s statements are an attempt to get a principal fired through protest, public activism, and political activity.  Perhaps they were a legitimate threat to murder a school principal.  The district court needs to make that call.

This brief opinion from the 5th Circuit makes one more point worth thinking about. The court points out that the standards for boisterous speech at a school board meeting are different from the standards that apply in the school during school hours.  Courts routinely support educators when they restrict disruptive or vulgar speech in the school building.  Here, the 5th Circuit implies that a board meeting is different.  Public comment at the board meeting is the opportunity for citizens to speak their minds. Perhaps a longer leash is appropriate. 

The case is Monroe v. Houston ISD, decided by the 5th Circuit on November 25, 2019.  We found it at 2019 WL 6320348.


Tomorrow: HIPAA and FERPA!