US District Courthouse, Harrisonburg, Virginia – Berryville resident Kenneth Liggins presented his case against Clarke County School Board Chairman Robina Bouffault today in the US Western District of Virginia. Liggins called three witnesses and concluded the day on the witness stand testifying in his own behalf. Bouffault will have the opportunity to present her side of the story beginning Friday morning.
Appearing in Judge Glen Conrad’s courtroom, Liggins and Bouffault are battling over a dispute that stemmed from an April 14, 2008 Clarke County School Board meeting in which Bouffault ordered Liggins to stop speaking after he suggested that the School Board may have violated the US Civil Rights Act.
As the morning courtroom session opened, Judge Conrad characterized Liggin’s claim as centering on two issues: Whether there was a First Amendment violation stemming from the abridgment of Liggins freedom to speak in a public forum and whether the Equal Protection Clause, part of the Fourteenth Ammendment to the United States Constitution, was violated.
Judge Conrad framed the issue for the perspective jury pool of 15 women and 9 men as whether or not Bouffault told Liggins to stop speaking and sit down based on the content of his speech or out of the need to control the decorum during the meeting.
The Equal Protection Clause provides that “no state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”.
After Liggins, who is representing himself in the case, and opposing attorneys Patrick Lacey and Stacey Haney of the Reed Smith law firm settled on a jury made up of six women and one man, both sides agreed to allow into evidence both a video and audio recording of the 2008 school board meeting along with two newspaper stories written about the case in 2009.
During opening arguments Liggins succinctly framed his motivation for the lawsuit to the jury.
“I filed this lawsuit in pursuit of justice. My rights are sacred to me just as I hope your rights are sacred to you,” Liggins told the citizen finders-of-fact.
Bouffault’s lead lawyer, Patrick Lacey, painted a more detailed picture for the jurors of what he believed they would hear during the two day trial.
Lacey described Bouffault as a political “neophyte” at the time of the incident due to her having had only four months of experience on the school board and never having previously served as chairman of a public body.
Lacey then went on to characterize the April 2008 meeting, in which over 150 people attended in support of then Clarke County Public School Principal Brenda Jones who many in the community believed was in imminent danger of losing her position as principal after more than 30 years of service, as a new occurrence for Bouffault and the new school board. He then went on to describe the statements and gestures made by Paul Jones, Brenda Jones’s former husband, who spoke on her behalf at the meeting, as inflammatory. “The audience was responding,” Lacey told the jurors.
Lacey told the jurors that the plaintiff (Liggins) had no basis for accusing the school board of terminating Ms. Jones. He said that Bouffault eventually asked the school board clerk to call the sheriff because she felt that the crowd needed to calm down.
After opening statements concluded, Liggins’ first witness of the trial was, Dorothy Davis.
Liggins worked throughout the day to chip away at Bouffault’s contention that the meeting had become unruly. Asked to characterize the meeting that night, Davis said that the majority of attendees were her age (74, Davis volunteered, even after Judge Conrad graciously allowed her to avoid the disclosure of her age) or older and predominantly retired teachers, college professors, and pastors.
Davis described her recollection of the meeting atmosphere as “relatively calm”.
Davis later recounted hearing gasps of surprise from the people in the audience after Bouffault demanded that Liggins stop speaking after only 15 – 20 seconds.
On cross examination Mr. Lacey attempted to focus on whether Davis’s memory of the night, more than two years past, might be “hazy”. Davis responded “No, it was a landmark meeting for our community.”
Liggins next called Brenda Jones to the stand. Jones told the court that she had received a letter in early April 2008 from the acting Clarke County Public Schools Superintendent notifying her that the School Board was making the decision to reassign her as a classroom teacher along with a reduction in her salary.
Liggins introduced Jones’s letter into evidence in support of his assertion that the School Board had terminated Jones in 2008 and that his accusation that the school board had violated Title 7 of the Civil Rights act was, in fact, true.
On cross examination, Lacey countered Liggins’s notion with testimony from Jones that the school board had ultimately retained her as principal at D G Cooley Elementary School.
Lacey asked Brenda Jones if Bouffault specifically asked that the sheriff be called to remove Mr. Liggins from the meeting. Jones responded that anyone in the room would have understood that it was Bouffault’s intention to have the sheriff remove Liggins.
Paul Jones, a former Clarke County Public School Administrator and teacher took the stand next. Jones admitted to Lacey that he had been very emotional in his April 2008 testimony supporting Brenda Jones before the school board. However, Jones remarked, his statements that night did not incite the other people in attendance.
“As a youngster I marched during the Civil Rights movement in North Carolina,” Paul Jones said. “This meeting wasn’t anything like that. God himself couldn’t get most of these 80-year old people to do anything more than clap a little and agree.”
Late in the day Liggins introduced a one hour audio recording of the meeting in which seventeen people spoke at the school board meeting in support of Brenda Jones.
The jury listened stoically as speaker after speaker on the audio file received applause that night as they spoke in support of Ms. Jones. As Mr. Paul Jones, the tenth speaker on the recording spoke, Ms. Bouffault could be heard asking Mr. Jones to not address the audience. Bouffault also asks for “calm, calm.”
After Mr. Jones finishes speaking, Mr. Liggins, the eleventh speaker of the evening, is then heard announcing his name and stating that he believed that the school board had violated “Section 7” of the Civil Rights Act with its action against Ms. Jones.
The audio file then becomes difficult to follow as Bouffault tells Liggins that he has wrongfully accused the school board of an illegal act and may no longer speak. Liggins then attempts to finish his statement but is shouted down by Bouffault. Liggins and Bouffault then exchange words until Bouffault can be heard instructing Clarke County staff member Thomas Judge to call the sheriff.
Liggins said that he voluntarily sat down after Bouffault asked for the sheriff to be called because he did not want to be arrested.
At 4:00pm Liggins took the stand as his own witness.
Perhaps due to the fact that Liggins is representing himself, Judge Conrad routinely interjected questions to each of the witnesses throughout the day.
Liggins’ testimony was no exception.
Judge Conrad asked Mr. Liggins if he felt that his First Amendment rights were abridged at the school board meeting.
“Yes sir,” Liggins replied to the Judge.
“I wasn’t there to create any problems. I was there to express my opinion. I listened to all of the others say their piece, why didn’t I get to say mine?”
“Did you believe that the action that the school board was taking against Ms. Jones was because of race?” Judge Conrad asked.
“Yes sir,” Liggins replied.
Mr. Lacey then asked Mr. Liggins if the “crowd” had reacted to his, Mr. Liggins, statements that night.
“No,” Liggins replied “They were reacting to what Ms. Bouffault did.”
Liggins ended the day describing the humiliation that he had felt after being told to stop speaking at the public hearing. He also said that he felt pain because of how Ms. Jones was being treated.
“It hurt me to know that citizens can work their way up from the bottom to the top and have it be taken from you because someone doesn’t like you for your race or whatever.”
Liggins said that so far he has spent 3,577 hours working on the lawsuit against Bouffault.
The trial is scheduled to recommence Friday morning at 8:45am in Harrisonburg.