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Teachers' union lawsuit claims the board's ban on political symbols is a violation of state and federal laws

In late August, the Newberg Education Association, the union that represents more than 280 teachers in the school district, gave notice that it would sue the Newberg School District and four of its board members if the board didn't rescind its ban on Black Lives Matter, Pride flags and other so-called political symbols in the schools.

The board went through with its ban last month, and the NEA has made good on its promise.

The lawsuit, filed in Yamhill County Circuit Court by the Portland law firm Bennett Hartman, argues that the school board's actions are unconstitutional and are so vague and overbroad, they could impact teachers' abilities to work in the district.

"As a result of the district's original directive and new policy, plaintiffs have been chilled in the exercise of their constitutionally protected rights of free speech," a complaint filed Nov. 3 by the NEA's attorneys reads. "They work under a constant fear that something that they are wearing or that they have displayed in their class such as a poster or a family picture or thought-provoking materials related to gender identity and race, sustainability and the environment, medical issues (including but not limited to COVID-19 protocols), borders and migration, criminal justice, economic justice, privacy and freedoms, climate change or other science, the Holocaust, the Civil War, and voting and democracy might be deemed in violation of the policy, subjecting them to additional scrutiny and discipline by their building administrator, the superintendent and ultimately the school board."

The lawsuit was filed by the NEA and four teachers and counselors from within the district: Jennifer Schneider, Drew Gallagher, Katherine Villalobos and Sara Linnertz. The lawsuit targets the district and the board's four conservative members: Chairman Dave Brown, vice-chairman Brian Shannon and directors Renee Powell and Trever Dehart.

When reached Thursday, Shannon said "I'm not going to comment on pending litigation." Attempts to contact Brown for comment were unsuccessful.

The suit requests a jury trial seeks an injunction, which would stop enforcement of the board's directive. the lawsuit also asks for a declaratory judgement from the bench admonishing the board for their actions.

"Plaintiffs seek a declaration that the district policy prohibiting plaintiff association members from 'hanging, posting, erecting or otherwise displaying any posters, signs, flags, banners, pictures or other digital or physical image that depicts support of opposition relation to a policy, quasi-political or controversial topic,' violates plaintiffs' guarantees under Article 1, Section 20 of the Oregon Constitution against vague laws that confer unbridled discretion, because such discretion creates the potential for unequal application of the law, and thus arbitrary or unequal treatment of individuals," the filing says.

The lawsuit further argues that prohibiting teachers from displaying signs in their classrooms is a violation of their rights of free speech and free association guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

"Defendants and their agents acted under color or authority of state law," the lawsuit continues. "They knew or should have known that their actions were unlawful under both the Oregon and federal constitutions."

The lawsuit further alleges that the school board violated teachers' 14th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection by adopting a directive that "is vague and overbroad in its scope, leaving association members without guidance as to what speech is prohibited and potentially a violation of district policy leading to potential discipline by the district and/or or their licensing through the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission."

Number of groups admonishing school board grows

The NEA lawsuit is just the latest affront to the board. In October, a half-dozen district patrons filed a lawsuit alleging the board violated public meeting laws when it hired Canby attorney Tyler Smith in August.

During the summer, the Newberg City Council took the school board to task, saying its ban on political symbols in schools was making the town a less desirable place to live or visit.

In September, the American Civil Liberties Union threatened legal action if the board didn't rescind its ban on political symbols in the schools.

In August, the Oregon Legislature's Black, Indigenous and People of Color caucus condemned the board for its effort to withdraw the district from the state's Every Student Belongs Act. The board has not addressed the act over the past several months.

In September, students at Tigard High School brandished Black Lives Matter and Gay Pride flags from the stands during a football game against Newberg players.

On a number of occasions dozens and sometimes hundreds of pro-BLM and Pride activists have gathered at the River Street flagpole to counter the school board's actions.

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