After calling Lyons Township High School District 204 Superintendent Brian Waterman and LTHS school board members “bobbleheads” for continuing to support COVID-19 mitigation efforts inside school buildings, a strident anti-masker was interrupted and removed from the North Campus Reber Center by two LaGrange police officers during the public comment period of the Dec. 20 LTHS school board meeting.
Bill See, a retired quality assurance engineer from Justice, has been a vocal presence at most LTHS school board meetings since August, arguing against masks mandates. See has likened forcing students to wear masks to torture and claims without providing evidence that suicides have increased among school children, including at LTHS, because of mask requirements. Waterman told the Landmark there have been no student deaths this school year.
See was a little more than a minute into his public comment on Dec. 20 when he described Waterman and school board members as “bobbleheads” for following Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s mask mandates.
LTHS generally limits each individual’s public comment to three minutes. LTHS school board President Kari Dillon interrupted See, saying that he was violating the district’s public comment rules.
“Mr. See, I’m going to stop you, you’re making some disparaging comments,” said Dillon.
See facetiously apologized and then referred to “Emperor Pritzker” and again called Waterman a “bobblehead,” turning to the audience to show them a bobblehead doll. That’s when Waterman got up and told See he had to leave.
“Mr. See your time is up and I’m going to ask you to leave the auditorium now,” Waterman said.
“If you don’t leave in 10 seconds you’ll be in violation of trespassing,” Waterman said to applause from most of the audience of about 30 people.
Two LaGrange police officers assigned to the meeting told See he had to leave and threatened to handcuff him if he didn’t. Police did not arrest See.
While Dillon and Waterman cited the board’s rules for public comment for giving See the boot, civil liberties advocates, including the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, questioned whether See should have been stopped from talking and removed from the meeting, saying that his First Amendment right to free speech may have been violated.
“There is sometimes a fine line between criticizing an official’s government work – speech at the core of the First Amendment – and attacking them as a person,” said Ed Yohnka, the director of communications and public policy for the ACLU of Illinois, in an email after reviewing video of the incident. “The speaker here stayed on the right side of the line, and the board should have allowed him to finish his comment. His removal was unnecessary.”
Jason Han, the executive director of Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center, agreed after reviewing the video of the meeting.
“It’s always problematic to the Citizen Advocacy Center when government officials exercise First Amendment restrictions when they chill speech under claims of what we call niceness policies,” Han told the Landmark in a telephone interview. “Certainly, nobody would have been harmed had Mr. See had been given his full three minutes to call people bobbleheads.”
Geoffrey Stone, the Edward H. Levi distinguished professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School and an expert in First Amendment law and free speech, said it was a close case.
“I would have let him have his three minutes as long as he did not go beyond what he actually said,” Stone said in an email after reviewing video of the incident. “But whether the [school board president] did violate the First Amendment is a matter of judgement.”
Dillon defended cutting See off and kicking him out of the meeting.
“I think it’s pretty obvious when someone’s belligerent,” Dillon said. “They’re continuing to go at somebody about something when we’ve clearly stated our positions on a lot of the issues that he comes to speak about. That information is made public on our website.”
Public comment at LTHS school board meetings has been particularly lively, some would say confrontational, since August when See and others vehemently opposed the district’s face mask requirement.
Other speakers, including two at the Dec, 20 meeting who were allowed to speak without interruption, have criticized the district for including books with sexual content on a summer reading list for freshman and sophomores, and for allegedly discriminating against conservative students.
Police have begun attending LTHS school board meetings this fall and in December the police presence has been increased to two officers at LTHS’s request.
Dillon has also begun to read statements before the public comment period, stating, “We will not allow disparaging, ignorant, racist, homophobic or hateful comments … [and] shall not use vulgar or obscene language or impede, delay, disrupt or interfere with the board meeting.”
Han said the policy is likely overbroad and that the ban on “disparaging” comments likely would not survive a court challenge. He also questioned whether the school board can prohibit “ignorant, racist, homophobic or hateful comments.”
“Those other adjectives might not pass muster as well,” Han said. “Certainly, the one that I believe doesn’t pass enough muster is that first one, disparaging.”
Courts have ruled that when speech is permitted in public places, government bodies may impose time, place, and manner restrictions on the speech but cannot regulate the content of the speech.
Dillon defended the school board’s policy, saying that racist, homophobic and hateful comments hurts students.
“I don’t think name calling is ever really appreciated, for anybody,” Dillon said. “I will reiterate that these are volunteer positions, they’re elected volunteer positions, but people don’t need to be subjected to abuse.”
Dillon said that the public comment policy was approved by the school’s law firm.