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ACLU sues Newberg school district, the latest of multiple lawsuits connected to school board's four-member conservative majority

The ACLU of Oregon filed a lawsuit Friday on behalf of district employee Chelsea Shotts, targeting the district and four of its school board members.

NEWBERG, Ore. — The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit against the Newberg School District and four members of the district's board of directors, challenging the district's recently enacted ban on political signs and displays.

The ACLU and the legal firm Davis Wright Tremaine filed the lawsuit Friday in Yamhill County Circuit Court on behalf of district employee Chelsea Shotts, asking the court to declare that a sign she posted in her classroom window is free expression protected by the Oregon Constitution and to enjoin the district from enforcing the ban.

It's the latest in a series of recent lawsuits stemming directly or indirectly from the controversial policy pursued by the school board's four-member conservative majority. The same four members made headlines last month for abruptly firing former district superintendent Joe Morelock. 

RELATED: Decision to fire Joe Morelock was a late update to the Newberg school board agenda

The controversies have also sparked recall campaigns against board chair Dave Brown and vice chair Brian Shannon, both of whom will face recall votes next month.

Shotts complaint

The board adopted a policy in August that banned district employees from displaying LGBTQ+ Pride and Black Lives Matter signs, flags and other displays on district campuses. 

The decision drew widespread criticism, including a threat from the ACLU to sue. Morelock also told the board on Sept. 1 that he would not uphold the ban because district lawyers had advised him that it was unconstitutional. The board adopted a new policy on Sept 28 that banned all political displays.

The lawsuit centers on a sign that Shotts, who identifies as bisexual and works as an educator at Dundee Elementary School, had posted in her classroom window before the policy was enacted. The sign consisted of the phrase "BE KNOWN" in front of a heart shape and rainbow background.

Dundee resident Michael Gunn emailed school principal Reed Langdon on Sept. 30 and complained about the sign, according to the lawsuit, referring to it as a "gay pride poster" and arguing that it violated the district's policy. 

Langdon concluded that the sign did not violate the policy, and Gunn appealed that decision to Morelock, who agreed with Langdon's assessment. Gunn then appealed Morelock's decision to the school board.

The sequence of events documented in the lawsuit matches the sequence outlined in an agenda summary ahead of the board's Nov. 9 meeting, in which the board was scheduled to hold a public hearing to consider whether to overturn Morelock's decision.

RELATED: Newberg school board chair approached superintendent candidate a month before Morelock was fired

The board's four conservative members voted to table the issue without reaching a decision. At the same meeting, Brown separately introduced a motion to fire Morelock without cause, and Shannon and board members Trevor DeHart and Renee Powell voted with him to adopt it.

The lawsuit alleges that the board violated district policy by failing to reach a decision within 20 days of the Nov. 9 hearing about the Gunn complaint, leaving Shotts uncertain about whether the sign violates the policy and whether she could face discipline over it.

It also alleges that the political sign ban violates Article I, Section 8 of the Oregon Constitution by regulating expression, and argues that the ban is overly broad and vague because it uses terms like "quasi-political" and "contemporary issue" without fully defining them.

The lawsuit alleges that the decision to enact the political sign ban directly after repealing the ban on Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ signs, coupled with the new policy's vague definitions, was intended "to confer unbridled discretion upon the Board specifically such that they could use it as a pretextual vehicle to discriminate and constrain speech that expresses viewpoints with which they do not agree."

Other lawsuits

The ACLU lawsuit is the fourth to be filed in direct or loose connection with the political sign ban policy and the board members who enacted it, and it echoes complaints in a Nov. 3 lawsuit filed by the Newberg Education Association.

That lawsuit, also filed in Yamhill County Circuit Court, named the district and Brown, Shannon, DeHart and Powell as defendants, alleged that the policy violates the 1st and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, and also requested a court order to block the policy.

RELATED: Newberg teachers union sues over 'political images' ban in schools

Two other lawsuits were filed in October:

On Oct. 18, DeHart, Powell, Shannon and Brown jointly filed a lawsuit in Yamhill County Circuit Court against Debbie Tofte, Katherine Barnett, AJ Schwanz and Tamara Brookfield, alleging that the four defendants violated a HB 3047, an "anti-doxxing" law passed by the state legislature earlier this year.

The lawsuit alleged that the defendants violated the law by posting information about the four board members' employers to Facebook as part of a public campaign against them.

On Oct. 21, Yamhill County residents Beth Woolsey, Greg Woolsey, Jeff McNeal, Kathleen McNeal, Meghan Rogers-Czarnecki, Stefan Czarnecki and Elizabeth Gemeroy filed a lawsuit against the Newberg School District and Brown, Shannon, DeHart and Powell, alleging that the four board members violated Oregon public meetings law by meeting privately to discuss plans to retain attorney Tyler Smith as supplemental legal counsel to the board. 

The four members officially voted to retain Smith during an Aug. 24 executive session, the lawsuit alleges, a decision which Morelock and the other three board members argued would violate public meetings law.

Smith was present via Zoom at the Nov. 9 board meeting and was stated to have drafted or reviewed a packet of proposed resolutions to fire Morelock, one of which Brown read at the meeting.

The other three board members expressed similar frustration about the hiring process for Smith at the Nov. 9 meeting. Board members Rececca Piros and Ines Peña said they hadn't been given access to communications between Smith and other board members, and board member Brandy Penner stated that Smith was "clearly not a board attorney, this is a personal attorney for four board members," an assertion which Brown and Shannon disputed.

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