US District Courthouse, Harrisonburg, Virginia – A Harrisonburg jury required only 20 minutes today to reject claims by plaintiff Kenneth D. Liggins that his First Amendment freedom of speech rights had been abridged by School Board Chairman Robina Bouffault at a 2008 Clarke County School Board meeting.
On Friday morning, the second day of the scheduled two-day trial, Ms. Bouffault took the stand at 9:00am to explain her motivations in asking Berryville Resident Kenneth to stop speaking during an April 14, 2008 Clarke County School Board meeting.
As during the previous day, Judge Glen Conrad began by entertaining motions from the two litigants. Bouffault’s counsel, Patrick Lacey, asked the court for a resolution of the case through summary judgment contending that the evidence presented by Liggins during the previous day hadn’t met the standard necessary to pass the case to a jury.
Lacey argued that Liggins’s accusations made against the Clarke County School Board on the night of the meeting were false and therefore not protected under the First Amendment; That Bouffault had clearly only been attempting to maintain order in an increasingly disruptive public meeting atmosphere; That a person in Bouffault’s position could not have reasonably known that she was violating Liggins’s free speech rights at the time.
Liggins objected to the request and was supported by Judge Conrad.
Conrad said that presiding officers in public meetings are generally immune from such claims when related to preventing speech when necessary to maintain order in a limited public meeting. However, Conrad continued, a presiding officer’s discretion is not unbounded and cannot be imposed in a way that impinges on the right to express opinions and ideas.
“This is an example of a classic jury question that cannot be decided as a matter of law,” Conrad told the courtroom. “The only question that need be answered, and it’s a simple question, was whether Ms. Bouffault’s action was based on maintaining decorum in the meeting or was a reaction to the content of Mr. Liggins’s statement.”
Bouffault’s testimony appears to have persuaded the jury that her concern was in maintaining order during the public hearing, a position that was reinforced by testimony from School Board member Jennifer Welliver later in the morning.
Much of Bouffault’s testimony covered the administrative aspects of her election as School Board chairman and the events leading up to the April 2008 meeting that had been called to consider a recommendation by then acting CCPS Superintendent John Taylor to remove Brenda Jones from her position as principal of DG Cooley Elementary School.
Jones ultimately retained her position as principal but not before a large number of community members turned out on April 14, 2008 to protest the perceived termination.
Bouffault said that one of the April 2008 meeting’s most vocal supporters of Ms. Jones, Jones’s ex-husband Paul Jones, had called her three times prior to the meeting. Bouffault said that Paul Jones was very upset and angry that his ex-wife was being demoted and that he had threatened Bouffault three times over the phone.
“You’re going to be really sorry if you do this,” Paul Jones said according to Bouffault.
Bouffault said that on the night of the school board meeting in which Brenda Jones’ status was to be decided in closed session, the demeanor of the “crowd” was not very friendly, although, Bouffault said that she did not speak to any of the attendees prior to commencement of the meeting.
The meeting was later moved from the CCHS library into the cafeteria to accommodate the large number of attendees.
“I had never experienced a meeting like that before nor since,” Bouffault said.
As in the previous day’s proceeding, Judge Conrad regularly intervened with questions of his own in order to help frame the legal issue for the jury.
Conrad asked Bouffault what she understood Mr. Liggins to be saying before she asked him to stop speaking. Bouffault said that she understood that Liggins was accusing the school board of having violated Brenda Jones civil rights.
Bouffault described that the level of tension in the meeting had been increasing throughout the evening and that she told Mr. Liggins to sit down because she believed that he was making a deliberate attempt to “wind up the crowd” and that her actions were only intended to regain control of the meeting.
School Board member, Jennifer Welliver took the stand at 10:00am.
Welliver said that her recollection from the meeting was that the intensity of feelings had been building throughout the evening and she was concerned about how much farther the meeting was going to be allowed to proceed when Mr. Liggins began his statement.
Liggins asked Welliver if she had been concerned by the responses that she had been hearing during the meeting.
Welliver said the April 2008 meeting was very different from previous meetings in which there wasn’t much audience participation.
“It was definitely very intenseâ€¦ I was concerned because I had friends and neighbors in the audience. It was very awkward and it was hard to tell where it was going to end.”
Although Welliver said that she had never feared for her own safety during the meeting she did have concerns about how much more intense things might get.
As with Ms. Bouffault, Judge Conrad questioned Welliver as to her understanding of Mr. Liggins’s accusation that the school board had violated the Civil Rights Act. Welliver confirmed that she understood Liggins’s accusation to be that the school board had violated Mrs. Jones’s constitutional rights based on Mrs. Jones’s race.
Under cross examination by Liggins, Welliver stated that she did not believe that Liggins, alone had incited the crowd, but she felt that a “line had to be drawn at that point” based on the reaction of the audience to Liggins’s statement.
“How long was I allowed to speak?” Liggins asked.
“A few seconds,” Welliver replied. “It was how you said it and the manner in how you were presenting yourself.”
In closing statements Ms. Bouffault’s counsel, Mr. Lacey, told the jury that Ms. Bouffault had not curtailed Mr. Liggins right to speak because he threatened the school board, but rather because she was worried about the conduct presented during the meeting.
“Mr. Liggins made a calculated and outrageous statement to make the audience react,” Lacey told the jury. “It was like pouring gas on a fire. Mr. Liggins got exactly what he wanted from the audience.”
Liggins’s closing statement recapped his central argument; “The school board gave me three minutes to speak but I only received 15 seconds. How could a man incite a crowd in just 15 seconds?” Liggins asked. “Ms. Bouffault didn’t like what I was saying because I was saying the truth. My rights are important to me because if we allow our rights to be taken away from us then we are left with nothing.”
After receiving Judge Glen Conrad’s jury instructions the jury adjourned to deliberate at 12:35pm. By 1:00pm the jury had returned with a verdict that Bouffault’s actions were justified in controlling the meeting and had not been intended to stifle the content of Liggins’s speech that night.
Juror Barbara Sickels, a medical billing specialist from Staunton, said after the trial that the decision had been easy to decide.
“Ten people spoke first and things were getting out of hand,” Sickels said “She tried to get the crowd to settle down and wasn’t comfortable with what was happening.”
Sickels said that she appreciated Judge Conrad’s questions to various witnesses throughout the trial.
“He was great!” Sickels said. “A lot of times you hear things that you want to ask more about, but can’t. I especially liked it when he restated questions so that the question could be better understood.”
After the trial Robina Bouffault said that she was “very pleased” with the decision.
“The school board has a lot of challenges ahead of it right now and I’m glad to have this one over and done with.”
Mr. Liggins has seven days within which to petition the court to set the jury’s decision aside.