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Eagle Point district violated teachers' rights

The Eagle Point School District enacted "fear-based policies" by banning picketers on its property during the May 2012 teacher strike and unconstitutionally violated the free-speech rights of picketing teachers and those of a sympathetic student, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Michael McShane ruled in favor of the Eagle Point Education Association as well as former association President Dave Carrell and former student Staci Boyer in their federal civil suit against the district over its policies on picketing and signs that were enacted on the strike's eve.

McShane's ruling, which adopts findings and recommendations declared in April by U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke, deemed those policies as overreaching in restraining striking teachers from any signs or picketing on district property.

The ruling also found that a security guard should not have forced student Boyer to park her car off-campus simply because it had an "I Support D9 Teachers" sign in the rearview mirror based on the district's pre-strike rule stating only approved signs and banners could be on school property.

Clarke's ruling declared that the district's strike policies overstepped the free-speech rights of teachers and students to the point that district leaders flunked their own civics class.

"In this case, in what could have been an incredible opportunity for students to witness the function of the Bill of Rights in their very own lives and learn first-hand that the important principles of our government are not mere platitudes, instead became a situation of reactionary, fear-based policies designed to suppress any opposition or unpopular viewpoint," Clarke wrote in his recommendation.

Carrell said Friday that he felt "vindicated" by the ruling, which he called "dead on" while favoring the strikers on each point raised during the bitter, weeklong strike.

"We were treated like thugs by D9, not like teachers," said Carrell, now a middle school math teacher in the Reynolds School District outside of Portland. "You trusted us with your kids last week and now we're thugs?

"This was a matter of walking the walk that we teach our students about all the time," Carrell said.

District Superintendent Cynda Rickert said she disagreed with the court's findings and will take the issue to the School Board Wednesday to determine whether the district will appeal.

Rickert said the policies and procedures enacted for the strike came out of advice the district received from the Oregon School Boards Association, and the ruling potentially has far-reaching implications.

"These were actions we were advised to take," Rickert said. "This is something much bigger than Eagle Point."

The ruling grants Carrell and Boyer "nominal damages" and requires their attorneys to file a proposed judgment in the case by next week.

At issue were a series of moves the School Board made just before the teachers struck May 8, 2012. They included separate resolutions banning all signs and banners from district property unless they received advance written approval from Rickert, and a ban of picketers from all district properties.

Clarke ruled that the resolutions were "a clear prior restraint on a particular viewpoint" not necessary to protect the district's mission and didn't consider reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on signs or picketers.

The sign ban was too broad and the district didn't show that Boyers' sign in her car caused a disruption at school, Clarke ruled.

Clarke also ruled that the blanket restrictions on picketers were unreasonable and was more about quelling a viewpoint than helping educate students. The restrictions were not based on curbing picketers just when students were there and did not take into account nondisruptive demonstrations such as quiet and peaceful picketing, Clarke ruled.

The district in a May 14 court filing claimed Clarke's ruling was in error because officials considered the school district property a place that was not a forum for free speech by the general public. District attorneys also argued that there were no appellate court decisions declaring that striking teachers have the right to picket on school property.

Moreover, the district argued that its banning of picketing on its property was not subject to free-speech thresholds cited by Clarke but instead was "government speech" essential to its collective bargaining position in contract talks.

Regardless, the district maintained that the restrictions were "reasonable and viewpoint-neutral," court documents state.

The filing also argued that the pre-strike policies should have been adjudicated as an unlawful labor-practice claim and not a free-speech issue.

The district claimed the policy enacted before the strike was merely an extension of long-standing district policies.

The district also claimed it should not be liable for the one-time action of the temporary security guard not acting on district policy when the guard turned Boyer away at the parking lot.

The court ruled against the district in all those claims.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or by email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Rebecca Konefal, a consultant with the Oregon Education Association, marches with about 200 striking employees outside the Eagle Point School District administration building in 2012. Mail Tribune file photo