Michigan mom sues school board for free speech violations – USA TODAY

Like many parents during COVID-19, Sandra Hernden didn’t like how her school district’s remote learning policies were hurting her children
While the Michigan mother and police officer understood why schools had to close initially during the pandemic, when Chippewa Valley Schools opted to stay virtual into the fall of 2020, Hernden had had enough.
One of her three sons was especially struggling. He has special needs and his GPA plunged to a 1.5 from a 3.5. He suffered socially, too. And Hernden felt increasingly frustrated with what was happening.
So she started pushing back against the school board’s decisions. She sent emails and communicated with the school board via Zoom, as well as attended in-person board meetings. 
Some of those interactions became heated and some of the rhetoric was over the top. But, from what I’ve seen in written correspondence between Hernden and board members that is now the subject of a federal lawsuit, Hernden’s words did not rise to the level of threatening behavior or speech unprotected by the First Amendment. 
The board’s response? To retaliate against Hernden by contacting her employer and then the U.S. Department of Justice. Hernden responded last week by suing the district for violating her constitutional rights.
More from Ingrid Jacques:Teachers unions want parents to forget what happened during COVID. Don’t let them.
This shunning of parents is not an isolated incident. And it speaks to why so many parents around the country are fighting for their kids and what they’re learning – despite pressure from the government to stand down.
At Chippewa Valley, the situation escalated when Elizabeth Pyden, the secretary of the board, forwarded an email exchange she had had with Hernden in late 2020 to Hernden’s supervisor at the police department. 
“I do not believe that you would like anyone expressing this level of anger, disrespect and veiled racism in your community,” Pyden wrote. 
Although Pyden said she didn’t expect any “adverse action” to be taken against Hernden, it’s hard to understand why an elected leader would contact a parent’s employer if she didn’t want supervisors to at least order Hernden to stop her efforts. Pyden didn’t specify what she meant by “veiled racism,” but levying that accusation at a police officer appears to be an attempt to undermine her career. You can read the exchange for yourself in the complaint
COVID school closures hurt kids:Parents were demonized for demanding schools reopen sooner. Now, we know they were right.
Hernden became aware of the email after her supervisor spoke to her about it several days later. She was shocked that a school board member had contacted her employer, and she had to undergo an internal investigation, which cleared her. 
After that incident, Hernden continued attending meetings and communicating with board members. And she continued to feel disrespected and ignored.
“It was frustrating, demeaning and humiliating,” Hernden told me. “Parents should have a right to air their grievances and be able to speak freely without fear of retaliation.”
Things got worse. Last year, the National School Boards Association sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking for federal help in dealing with upset parents at school board meetings – a situation the group equated to “domestic terrorism.”
The NSBA got swift blowback from that letter and eventually apologized to the parents it offended. 
Biden officials were happy to oblige the school boards association, however. Last October, Attorney General Merrick Garland responded with a memo detailing how the Justice Department would take the association’s request seriously and indicated the department’s willingness to investigate and prosecute individuals who harassed or intimidated school officials.
Chippewa Valley board President Frank Bednard must have been paying attention. The day after Garland issued that memo, Bednard sent an email, along with an exchange he had with Hernden about the legality of public comments at meetings to the Department of Justice. He called her out, as well as the group Moms for Liberty
He said the following: “Anything that could be done to curb this behavior by these people would be greatly appreciated by our board, administration, and our community.” 
It’s not clear what these moms had done exactly, other than express their deep concerns over what the school board was doing in response to COVID-19 and the consequences for their children.
The intention is more evident: intimidation and the silencing of opposing views.
Reporting Hernden to both her employer and to the federal government is a disproportionate response to what she was trying to accomplish. And it runs afoul of the Constitution and her First Amendment rights. Impassioned pushback from parents about legitimate issues is not the same as threats of violence and harassment. 
That’s why Hernden filed a federal lawsuit last week against the Chippewa Valley school board, including Bednard and Pyden. 
“Sandra’s story presents a great example of what happens when these broader policies, in this case COVID-19 policies, let people fall through the cracks, and her opposition to that is what led to the complaints to her employer and to the Department of Justice,” says Steve Delie, attorney with the Michigan-based Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, which is representing Hernden. 
Hernden isn’t in this for money. She’s asking for $1 in damages from the defendants. 
For her, it’s about principle, and standing up not only for her rights but also for the rights of all parents. She wants parents to know they aren’t alone. 
“I have gotten hundreds of messages from Michigan and across the country from parents and teachers, thanking me for taking up this fight because so many were too scared to say anything,” she says.
Hernden is also running this fall for the school board where her son now attends school – and is showing improvement.
As she says: “It’s everything to do with parents being heard, and parents’ rights when it comes to their kids’ education. They are our children – they don’t belong to the government.”
More from Ingrid Jacques:
Student loan forgiveness: Biden’s fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants approach to canceling student loans is creating a huge mess
Dumping Roe may backfire on abortion opponents.Republicans should have been ready.
Are Republicans ‘semi-fascists’?Biden’s ‘basket of deplorables’ moment won’t play well.
Ingrid Jacques is a columnist at USA TODAY. Contact her at ijacques@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques 


Leave a Comment