Victory for Virginia Moms Who Challenged School District

Goldwater Institute

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, 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.