It’s Politics, and It’s Legal, Student Tells School Board

ROCKFORD, Ill. (CN) — An Illinois high school student sued his school district, claiming it suspended him unconstitutionally for posting an online video that criticized the mayor.

Matthew Ahmann, a senior at Cary-Grove High School in Cary, sued the Board of Education of Community High School District 155 in federal court on Monday. He claims Dean of Students Jim Kelly warned him not to say or do anything to disrupt Cary Village Mayor Mark Kownick’s speech to students at the school on government and politics.

Cary, a village of 18,000, is in McHenry County, about 45 miles northwest of Chicago.

Ahmann, represented by Patrick Provenzale with Ekl, Williams & Provenzale in Lisle, seeks $50,000 in damages for civil rights violations and a court order expunging his one-day, in-school suspension.

Mayor Kownick spoke to students on Sept. 26 last year. Ahmann says the speech “was of great public interest, as it touched upon issues of political policy and governance, both generally and specifically to Cary, Illinois.”

He claims that Kownick, “directly or indirectly, communicated with Dean Kelly before presenting his political speech … to present his concerns about Matt’s presence during the speech and Matt’s prior political activity, and to direct Dean Kelly to restrain Matt from saying or doing anything during Mayor Kownick’s speech.”

Kelly obliged him, Ahmann says, agreeing “to convey a threatening ultimatum to Matt, warning Matt that there would be negative consequences to Matt if Matt said or did anything during Mayor Kownick’s speech.”

“In response to, in agreement with, and in furtherance of Mayor Kownick’s demand that Matt’s political activity be muzzled, Dean Kelly confronted, intimidated and coerced Matt immediately prior to Mayor Kownick’s speech.”

Ahmann says Kelly knew he had been critical of the mayor and that he expressed his political views online.

Outside of school he is a political journalist, Ahmann says. A Twitter account under his name describes him as a business owner and politician. His website and social media posts have a conservative edge, and tackle issues of free speech, including controversies surrounding NFL protests during the national anthem, and his school’s decision to ban a student from wearing a shirt displaying the Confederate flag.

Ahmann says he did not risk exercising his First Amendment right to speak during the mayor’s talk to his Advanced Placement Government and Politics class but later posted a video and audio recording of the speech on his website because he believed it was of “great political importance to the public.”

Ahmann’s website and the post have since been taken down but a YouTube video of the audio remained online as of Wednesday morning. His website was taken down on Tuesday afternoon shortly after Courthouse News reached out to him for comment through the contact page of his website.

An Oct. 8, 2017, post at the website MattAhmann.com was titled “Mayor Kownick Insults Local Property Owner,” with a subheading, “No Limits When Bashing Local Property Owner.”

In the 59-second YouTube video, a speaker identified as Kownick speaks about alleged obstruction to a deal for a gas station, saying that when the property owner “moves on, so to speak, those kids are going to be like, let’s move this thing along.”

Later, responding to a female questioner, the speaker calls the property owner a “gruff old man” who comes to meetings with “shorts and socks pulled up to his knees and sits down with a ratty T-shirt.”

“This guy’s a multimillionaire, and he doesn’t care,” the speaker on the video says.

In a brief telephone interview, Mayor Kownick said he could neither confirm nor deny whether he was the speaker in the video and could not comment on pending litigation.  He is not a party to the lawsuit.

Ahmann says that when Kelly learned he’d posted the video, he ordered him to serve a one-day suspension, on Oct. 13, 2017.

“To conceal his retaliatory motives and to further perpetuate the agreement, Dean Kelly justified suspending Matt for ‘inappropriate cellphone use in class w/o permission,’ loosely citing to the student disciplinary code,” the lawsuit states.

Ahmann says he complained to school administrators, who told him he could not appeal and his suspension was final. He says the incident has left a black mark on his record as he applies to colleges and universities, and says that his record is “otherwise exemplary and unblemished.”

The school district could not be reached for comment after business hours Tuesday.

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