ACLU of Rhode Island Will Defend Parent Threatened with Lawsuit by School Superintendents

February 16, 2001 12:00 am

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ACLU of Rhode Island
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PROVIDENCE, R.I.–The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today announced that it will represent North Smithfield parent Georgeanne Bourgeois, who was threatened with a lawsuit by a school superintendent for comments she made about him in an e-mail message to other parents.

“The ACLU has agreed to represent Ms. Bourgeois because we wish to assure all parents in North Smithfield — and the rest of the state — that they have a fundamental right to speak out, without fear of intimidation, on matters of public concern,” said ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown.

For a number of months, a group of parents has been complaining about environmental problems at the North Smithfield Elementary School and about the school district’s response to those perceived problems, according to Brown.

In a February 5th e-mail message to 14 people, Bourgeois criticized public statements made by Superintendent M. Richard Scherza about the problem, calling his responses “dishonest and deceiving.” Four days later, she received a letter from Scherza’s attorney, threatening her with “appropriate legal action” if she did not issue “an immediate retraction and written apology” to Scherza.

In a letter addressed to Scherza’s attorney and faxed this morning to him and to Scherza, the ACLU’s Brown said that the ACLU would file a counter-claim should any lawsuit against Bourgeois be filed. The counter-claim would argue that Scherza has violated the state’s “SLAPP suit” (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”) law, which is designed to deter lawsuits brought to inhibit people’s exercise of free speech rights.

The letter adds: “Ms. Bourgeois’ opinions about Mr. Scherza, who is clearly a public figure, were just that — opinions. She had, and has, a clear constitutional right to express those views. . . . We find it shocking that a high-ranking school official would threaten a lawsuit against a parent simply for making comments to fourteen other town residents who are deeply concerned about their children’s health.

“No parent in North Smithfield should have to fear being sued by a public official for speaking her mind in trying to protect the health and well-being of her children. Nor should parents have to worry about self-censoring themselves before criticizing the school official who has ultimate supervisory power over their children. However offensive Mr. Scherza may have found Ms. Bourgeois’ comments, his threat of a lawsuit against her is a much greater offense to the many concerned parents in North Smithfield trying to organize and advocate for changes to safeguard their children’s health.”

The letter concluded by urging that Scherza reconsider his threat of a lawsuit.

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