Couple Says District Tried to Muzzle Them After Dispute

CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) – A husband and wife claim in court that after years of involvement with the booster club and other organizations at their local high school they suddenly found themselves ostracized and were further punished for Facebook posts about the situation.

In a federal complaint filed in Charleston on July 14, Foy and Joe Ford say they have been adult volunteers with organizations supporting students at Waccamaw High School since 2006, most notably, the cheer booster club.

But they say their relationship with the school soured in the spring of 2013 when the principal, David Hamel, denied the cheerleading squad access to their equipment refused to approve a fundraiser for the girls in May 2013.

The Fords claim they sought the aid of defendant schools Superintendent Randall Dozier, and, after waiting three months for him to take action, filed a complaint with the defendant Georgetown County School Board about Dozier’s alleged failure to address their concerns.

Instead of remedying the situation, the couple says, the principal punished them by imposing even more requirements on the cheer booster club for conducting fundraisers than were required for other clubs. The lawsuit states that at the same time, the principal denied the cheerleaders equal and fair access to the gym.

The Fords say the roiling dispute reached a new pitch a few months later, when the district is alleged to have threatened them with legal action for comments Joe Ford posted on a newspaper’s Facebook page that criticized the district’s lack of professionalism.

The Fords say the threat came in the form of a letter in which the district unlawfully forbid them from making any more public comments about the district officials or the school system.

That prompted them to file a Title IX complaint with the Office of Civil Rights.

“The OCR conducted an investigation and requested certain information from the school Superintendent,” the complaint says. “Plaintiffs received on July 15, 2014 a copy of a letter from the OCR which indicated that the Nov. 8,2013 letter was issued with the specific intent to prevent the Plaintiffs from posting comments critical to school officials when they threatened the Plaintiffs with legal action for posting comments on the internet.”

The investigation also allegedly revealed the Fords concerns about how the booster club was being treated were never discussed openly at school board meetings.

However in emails obtained from the Freedom of Information Act request, they claim, it is clear that three board members approved of the letter threatening legal action.

The Fords say the letter had the effect of suppressing their First Amendment rights for a year. Then, in October 2014, the district resent the letter —  this time with the threat of legal action redacted.

However, the matter was far from settled, the Fords claim.

Shortly after they received the letter , Hamel removed the cheerleaders as the operators of the gym’s concession stand. According to the complaint, Hamel then had the cheer coach inform the Fords that they were banned from the campus and would be subject to trespassing charges if they returned.

“The plaintiffs, leaders in the community and dependable, reliable volunteers at the school were humiliated and embarrassed by this unlawful conduct,” the complaint says.

The Fords seek injunctive relief and unspecified compensatory damages.

They are represented by Geraldine Sumter of Ferguson Chambers & Sumter PA in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Lindsey Thompson, compliance director for the school district, said she was unaware of the lawsuit and that the district has not yet been served.

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