In March 2020, when the Gladstone School District announced it would transition to remote learning, Oregon mother Glenda Scherer was concerned about the effect this action would have on her daughter and special-needs son. She soon began to speak out, utilizing the district’s social media pages and board meetings to ask questions and offer feedback.
It didn’t take long for the district to attempt to silence her.
Scherer explains it started with a virtual school board meeting in July 2020. When she submitted a public comment that was critical of the district, it was not only disregarded during the meeting but even excluded from the minutes. Although the board claimed it would consider her comments and address them at a later date, it never did. When the board muted Scherer, she changed her display name to “Unheardparent” — a moniker she has since adopted on social media, where she has a growing audience of 11.5K followers.
The district escalated its online censorship campaign by blocking her on Twitter, requiring her Facebook posts on a school page to be preapproved by school personnel, and prohibiting her from tagging the district on social media. The district also sent Scherer a letter purporting to ban her from attending public school board meetings in person — unless and until the superintendent granted approval.
Notably, the board also adopted a ban on “comments regarding any individual district staff member” — a policy it has interpreted so broadly as to prohibit any criticism of board members or high-level district employees, even if only referenced by title. This policy silenced Scherer even as she sought answers about the district’s failure to discipline an employee who had been investigated for abusing her 5-year-old son.
At the time, Scherer reported to local media that she received a vague letter stating that school personnel had used “a restraint” on her son, but could not obtain further documentation of the incident. Scherer was then excluded from a debrief meeting on the incident, even though Oregon law requires that parents be invited to attend such meetings. When she asked her son what had happened, he talked about being dragged out of the room by his feet and told her, “I want to go to a school where the teachers don’t hurt the kids.”
The Oregon DHS sent officials to investigate, but due to the narrow scope of the definition of “child abuse” at the time, they were unable to substantiate the claims.
To add insult to injury, the district kept that employee working in the same classroom during the investigation and offered no other educational options for Scherer’s son.
Since then, the state of Oregon adopted Senate Bill 790, which has expanded the definition of child abuse to include restraints and seclusion. While this meaningful change will help parents seek justice for their children in the future, it does not change what happened to Scherer’s son.
Meanwhile, Gladstone School District is still stonewalling her concerns, and its social media and public hearing policies continue to infringe on her constitutional right to free speech.
So when Scherer approached my organization, Liberty Justice Center (LJC), we were eager to take her case — LJC has a proud history of defending Americans’ First Amendment rights and working to expand educational freedom. Both of those principles are threatened when government officials collude to silence parents who want to improve their school districts.
Gladstone School District’s actions are blatantly unconstitutional. The district’s requirement that comments receive preapproval from school officials is a classic example of an unconstitutional prior restraint, and in a 2022 decision soon to be considered by the Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit Court held that school board members who blocked their critics on social media had violated the First Amendment.
On a personal level, the policy I found most offensive was the district’s ban on criticism of its own employees and administrators — a type of policy referred to by attorney Alan Gura of the Free Speech Institute as “the Voldemort Rule: he who must not be named.” This policy struck a nerve because my own political awakening occurred while observing school board meetings in middle school after my upstate New York school district voted to remove the name “Indians” from the school’s sports teams and replace it with… nothing. The controversy that ensued became so vicious that it was profiled by The New York Times as a “Catskills Culture War.”
As the Times accurately observed, those “board meetings [were] loud and ugly, with names like ‘racists’ and ‘freaks’ flying freely.” But, to the board’s credit, they allowed community members to speak their minds, engaging with irate parents and students alike, and defending their position to the public. Voters ultimately had the final say, electing a new slate of board members who voted to reinstate the team’s name.
To me and the other students in our rural school district, the experience provided invaluable lessons on American principles like democracy, free speech, and government transparency. However, in Gladstone and elsewhere, school districts are teaching students a different lesson — that dissent should be silenced and government officials should be insulated from criticism. This is wrong.
Fortunately, parents and advocates like Scherer have been pushing back. For example, school officials in Broward County, Florida, received an icy reception from a panel of 11th Circuit judges skeptical of their censorship regime. Similarly, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression recently stood up for parents in Teaneck, New Jersey, who were censored for criticizing their superintendent’s response to the recent escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ultimately, the First Amendment protects the right of these parents to publicly criticize their school districts, not just through vague references to policies but through frank and direct criticism of the administrators and educators implementing those policies. Accordingly, the Liberty Justice Center has sent a demand letter to Gladstone School District, calling on the district to immediately bring its social media and public comment policies and practices into compliance with the First Amendment.
The ball is now in Gladstone’s court. If they do not comply, Liberty Justice Center stands ready to vindicate Scherer’s constitutional rights in federal court.