Madison school parents fighting district’s meeting policies claim they are ‘vague’

The parents and grandparents who have asked a federal judge to rule that the Madison school board is preventing them from sharing their opinions say the district’s public comment policies are unconstitutionally “vague,” among other problems.

Billy Ison, his wife, their daughter and her significant other and a friend filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Cincinnati in February. They claim the school board made it virtually impossible for them to speak their views during school board meetings, because of their views on the district’s armed staff policy

“The school board has engaged in a concerted campaign designed to chill and silence plaintiffs from further public criticism of its actions by imposing prior restraints on plaintiffs ability to participate in public meetings and by fabricating requirements as barriers to public participation that do not appear in the school board’s written rules,” the lawsuit reads.

RELATED: Family claims intimidation, censorship in Madison schools gun debate in federal lawsuit

The suit claims the board had Ison physically removed from a meeting in May 2018 and now has banned him from using the words “pro-gun agenda.”

They are asking the judge for a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction and unspecified damages.

The district filed a response in March, saying it is within its rights to impose rules on public participation during meetings.

“Their request for injunctive relief should be denied because Madison’s public participation policy satisfies the ‘time, place, and manner’ test: it is content-neutral, is narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and there are ample alternative channels of communication available to plaintiffs,” the response reads.

The district’s policy prohibits people from making “threatening” or “personally directed” remarks, and the two sides disagree about the meaning of those words as it pertains to a meeting in May 2018 when Ison was removed from the meeting. The policy is “vague” and that is why Ison’s attorney says it is problematic. Ison’s lawyer, Matt Miller-Novak, filed a response recently also attacking the “content-neutral” claim.

“Any time Ison has used the term ‘pro-gun agenda’ in his speeches to the board, it has threatened to remove him,” Miller-Novak wrote. “As a result, the board has de facto banned use of the phrase ‘pro-gun agenda,’ apparently deeming it to violate the prohibition on antagonistic expression. This is a prime example of why this Court should enjoin the board from continuing to abuse its vague rules.”

MORE: Madison Schools oppose injunction over public commentary policy

The Isons have also challenged the policy that requires people who want to speak at meetings come to the district office, at least two days in advance, in person and fill out a form. They said previously people could email or fax their speaking requests. This rule, they say, prevents many people from speaking at meetings because they work and can’t get to the office before it closes.

“The in-person delivery requirement is neither justified by nor narrowly tailored to a compelling interest and is therefore unconstitutional,” the Isons’ attorney wrote.

The gun policy prompted another legal action when parents sued in Butler County Common Pleas Court, trying to get more training for armed staff. That action is pending in the 12th District Court of Appeals after the judge said teachers don’t need 728 hours of peace officer training.

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