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Olathe mom who was ejected from a school board meeting loses first round of her free speech lawsuit

 Jennifer Gilmore speaks at the January 2022 Olathe School Board meeting just before she was removed during the public-comment period.
Screengrab Olathe Public School Board Meeting
Jennifer Gilmore speaks at the January 2022 Olathe School Board meeting just before she was removed during the public-comment period.

Jennifer Gilmore sued the Olathe School Board and various individuals in January, claiming they violated her First Amendment free-speech rights and the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

An Olathe woman who lost her race for Olathe school board and was later removed from a board meeting has lost her bid to prevent the board from enforcing its new policy governing public comments at meetings.

Jennifer Gilmore sued the board and various individuals in January, claiming they violated her First Amendment free-speech rights and the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Gilmore, who has a child in the school district, ran for a seat on the school board in 2021, campaigning against mask mandates and critical race theory. She lost to Julie Steele by 65 votes.

At a Jan. 13, 2022, board meeting at which Steele and two other newly elected board members were sworn in, Gilmore got up to speak during the public comment portion.

After Gilmore made an apparent reference to Steele and her father’s expenditures on behalf of her campaign — and called Steele’s father, Johnson County precinct committeeman Jim Randall, a liar — the president of the board, Joe Beveridge, said, “You’re done. You are done.”

After a few more seconds of heated exchange, Beveridge called for a five-minute break, during which a school security employee and an assistant superintendent escorted her to Gilmore's chair to collect her things and told her to leave the building.

At the time, the school board had a policy, since revised, allowing the school board president to interrupt statements that were disruptive or “not germane to the business activities of the Board.”

Gilmore’s comments came against the backdrop of increasingly acrimonious school board meetings across the country at which parents have badgered and even threatened school board members over COVID and other policies they disagree with.

Gilmore's lawsuit originally challenged the Olathe school board’s old policy, but after it was revised in April, she amended it to challenge the new policy as well. The new policy deleted a provision that the school board president could deny speaking privileges to anyone making “personal attacks, or rude or defamatory remarks” about school district employees or students.

Gilmore nonetheless claimed she was unsure what she could say under the new policy and asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction barring it from taking effect.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Holly L. Teeter denied Gilmore’s motion, finding that Gilmore was unlikely to prevail if the case were to go to trial. Teeter said the revised policy limiting public comments to topics “germane to the business of the Board” was a reasonable and viewpoint-neutral limitation that does not violate the First Amendment.

She also rejected Gilmore’s argument that the words “germane to the business of the Board” are unconstitutionally vague.

“People of ordinary intelligence would understand ‘germane’ in this context to mean relevant,” Teeter wrote. “The Court struggles to see how a person of ordinary intelligence would not understand that their remarks during a school board meeting should be relevant to the business of the school board.”

Gilmore was represented in her lawsuit by Linus Baker, a Stilwell lawyer who has filed a stream of mostly unsuccessful lawsuits challenging school vaccination and masking policies on religious grounds.

Reached on Monday, Baker said Teeter’s ruling only applied to the new policy and that “it doesn’t speak to what happens to Ms. Gilmore under the old policy.”

Baker said Gilmore was seeking nominal damages and attorney’s fees under the old policy and noted that the lawsuit “did in my mind motivate them to change their unconstitutional policy and get it revised.”

“So that was something that was accomplished in that regard,” Baker said. “And Judge Teeter has not spoken to the issue yet of not just what you can about under either policy but this idea that they had the ability to eject a speaker from the public meeting itself or the building.”

Michael Norris, a Leawood attorney who represented the school board, said he was “certainly pleased” with the court’s decision.

“We believe it was the correct outcome,” he said.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Dan Margolies is editor in charge of health news at KCUR, the public radio station in Kansas City. Dan joined KCUR in April 2014. In a long and varied journalism career, he has worked as a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star and Reuters. In a previous life, he was a lawyer. He has also worked as a media insurance underwriter and project development director for a video production firm.