from the it's-free-speech-all-the-way-down dept
The VC Star has a slightly bizarre article about a school board trustee of the Conejo Valley Unified School District (in Southern California) named Mike Dunn, who apparently was upset about a speech given by a mother at a board meeting. That mother — Jessica Weihe — also blogs on the site AnonymousMommy.com (though as far as I can tell, she was not “anonymous” in that people in the community appeared to know who she was). Weihe gave a perhaps slightly rambling speech at a recent board meeting. The details appear to be somewhat specific to some district policies on handling “mature” books, but suffice it to say that it appears that Dunn was arguing against certain books being on the curriculum because he felt their content was inappropriate. Among the books that there was some controversy about was Sherman Alexie’s quite well known book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Weihe’s speech mocked Dunn for having tried to get it off the curriculum, and accuses him of not having read the book, and over-reacting to why it might be a problem. Here’s a snippet from what she said:
Unlike Mr. Dunn, I actually read the book in its entirety. In fact, I led an online book reading of Part-Time Indian, in which 40 local parents participated in, so that we could be better informed as to the concern regarding this literature selection before its approval, concern which Mr. Dunn raised at a June board meeting over the phrase ?kicked him in the balls.? I have to say, I was quite disappointed to find no salacious material! You all had me bracing to clutch my pearls! Mr. Dunn, who cannot and has not confirmed he actually read the book in entirety, (I mean, he couldn?t even find time to attend board governance training) falsely and inappropriately asserted in a public letter to the Acorn that approving this book was akin to ?child abuse? and that it was ?pornographic? in nature. Aside from noting how reprehensible it is to assert that our curriculum committee and teachers want to impose pornography on our students and take part in an act of child abuse, if this were to be true, I find it curious it?s not asterisked as such here. It?s because it?s not pornographic, nor, as Mr. Dunn would have our community believe, child abuse.
There’s a lot more in the talk, but that gives you the basic idea. Dunn, not surprisingly, wasn’t happy about this. So… rather than respond or give his position, he decided to call Weihe’s boss and threaten to try to shame their company if she continued to say similar things about the school board or its members.
If you can’t read that, it says:
I am told that you approve of the political activities of Jessica Wiehl (anomymous mommie).
Every time she slanders or libels the school district or a school board member during public comments at a board meeting, I am going to respond that Jessica she works for Mustang Marketing and that you support her opinions.
Her boss — Scott Harris — responded pretty quickly, and did so pretty thoroughly:
If you can’t read that, it says:
Thank you for the courtesy of putting your threat in writing. However, before you go off half-cocked and wrong–again–and while you often have little apparent interest in the truth or facts, allow me to correct you in advance of you making good on your threats.
I support Jessica’s right to her views and to her expressing them. Her views are her own, not mine or my companies. If you’d like to point out that I support community involvement, community activity and freedom of speech–please do. You can open and close each meeting with that and hang a poster over your head that states the same thing. Heck, I’ll pay for the poster, if that helps.
If, as you have threatened, you choose to falsely point out that I support all her views, none of which she shares with me in advance of the meetings, I am putting you on notice that that is a false statement.
Again, so that I’m clear, supporting Jessica’s right to her opinions and expressing them in a public forum (and I do!), is far different from me supporting her opinions, which I may or may not, depending on her actual positions. I hope I’ve made this clear enough for you to understand.
And since I’m not convinced that you understand the definition of slander, I have included it here. I think if you take the time to read this – and to follow through with your threat – you’ll see you’ve exposed yourself – and the CVUSD – to a lawsuit.
n. oral defamation, in which someone tells one or more person an untruth about another, which untruth will harm the reputation of the person defamed. Slander is a civil wrong (tort) and can be the basis for a lawsuit.
Mike, have a terrific Thursday and maybe you can limit your threatening emails to just me, at least for today=)
A number of other emails have since been sent, with Dunn “suggesting” that he and Harris go to mediation (I’m not quite clear what they have to mediate, but…). Harris responds to the mediation request by pointing out that there’s nothing to mediate, and he’s happy to meet if Dunn wishes to apologize (and, reminding Dunn that he supports Wiehl’s First Amendment rights and that doesn’t mean he agrees with her opinions).
Either way: what a mess. Having a public official make threats like that certainly appear to be attempts to stifle speech, which would be a flat out First Amendment violation. Some people might respond that public shaming, or even agitating to get someone fired, is using “more speech” against speech someone doesn’t like — and in many cases, that’s true. But when one is a public official, the calculus changes, because it becomes government attempting to suppress speech. From Okwedy v. Molinari:
A public-official defendant who threatens to employ coercive state power to stifle protected speech violates a plaintiff’s First Amendment rights, regardless of whether the threatened punishment comes in the form of the use (or, misuse) of the defendant’s direct regulatory or decisionmaking authority over the plaintiff, or in some less-direct form.
That seems fairly on point.
As for the cross claims of defamation… neither seem particularly strong, though Harris would probably have a slightly stronger argument. The only real statements of fact that I see in Wiehl’s original speech was about whether or not Dunn had read the book, but she lays out her reasons for thinking so (asking him to quote the problematic parts and him refusing to, as well as his non-answer about having read the book). Besides, it’s a tough lift to argue that saying someone hadn’t read a book is defamatory. As for Harris’s defamation threat in the other direction, obviously it would depend on what Dunn actually said, but it is at least true that he would have knowledge that his initial claim (of Harris supporting Wiehl’s positions) is false, and that could make it a bit dicier for Dunn. The fact that Wiehl is also claiming that someone left a voicemail at her employer’s office saying they would no longer do business with the company and would be telling all their friends not to do business with them (implying because of this) at least presents evidence of reputational harm done.
No matter what, though, this is a really bad look for Dunn. Not just in trying to stop high school kids from reading, but then trying to suppress the speech of someone who criticized him for blocking the book. Dunn, as a public official, has the right to speak his mind, but not to ban books or to suppress the speech of the public. Those are both pretty fundamental to the First Amendment.