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Newberg teachers sue district, school board members over ‘political’ image ban in schools

Families, staff, and community members marched in support of the LGBTQ+ community and Black Lives Matter ahead of a Newberg school board meeting Aug. 10, 2021. The school board voted to ban Black Lives Matter and pride flags.
Joel Bock
Families, staff, and community members marched in support of the LGBTQ+ community and Black Lives Matter ahead of a Newberg school board meeting Aug. 10, 2021. The school board voted to ban Black Lives Matter and pride flags.

The teachers union in Newberg filed suit Wednesday over a policy passed narrowly by its school board, limiting what kinds of images or signs school employees can display on campus. The “Ensuring Safe Environments To Learn” policy bars school employees from displaying images “relating to a political, quasi-political, or controversial topic.”

The Newberg policy has been a lightning rod for controversy, with the ACLU, Democrats in the Oregon Legislature and the State Board of Education all issuing statements against it. The policy, backed by a four-member majority of the Newberg school board, started out as a directive to remove signs and posters showing support for Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ Pride.

According to school board meeting minutes from July 13 included in the lawsuit, school board vice chair Brian Shannon explained his support for removing BLM and Pride symbols saying he, “feels they are inherently political symbols and posting them in a taxpayer funded facility equates to indoctrination of students into certain ideological beliefs which is not appropriate and we need to refocus our district on education, not indoctrination.”

The school board agreed to table the motion at that meeting.

Some in the Newberg community responded that they wanted the district not to adopt the policy, and instead affirm support for Black students and the district’s LGBTQ community. The board was also receiving advice that such a ban could be unconstitutional for singling out certain types of speech for prohibition.

By late August, the local teachers’ union, the Newberg Education Association, had filed a tort claim notice letting the district know it intended to sue over the policy. Meanwhile, the policy was changed from a ban on certain symbols — specifically Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ Pride — to a more generic ban on images that could be considered “controversial” or “political.”

The school board put off voting on the policy until after school started. When it officially voted in late September, the ban of political symbolspassed 4-3.

In its 18-page complaint filed Wednesday, the Newberg Education Association argues the policy violates two amendments of the U.S. Constitution: the first amendment protecting free speech, and the fourteenth amendment guaranteeing equal protection. The suit also argues the Newberg policy violates Article I, Section 20 of the Oregon Constitution which protects, “against vague laws that confer unbridled discretion, because such discretion creates the potential for unequal application of the law.” And, the teachers’ suit contends the Newberg policy “unreasonably discriminates against plaintiffs on the basis of the content of their speech” in violation of the Oregon Constitution, Article I, Section 8.

The union is calling for the Yamhill County circuit court to block the Newberg School District from enforcing the policy.

In a press release today, the Newberg Education Association said the suit was part of an effort, “to create safe learning environments for our students.”

“This lawsuit is just one more step to guarantee that the personal politics and prejudices of the new School Board majority aren’t able to enter our classrooms or to make any Newberg student feel as though they aren’t safe or welcome in their own neighborhood public school,” continued Newberg union president Jennifer Schneider.

A message sent to the chair and vice-chair of the Newberg school board requesting comment wasn’t returned this afternoon. The school district responded to OPB saying that board members could have their own individual responses, but for the district’s part, “Newberg Public Schools does not comment on pending litigation.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Rob Manning has been both a reporter and an on-air host at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before that, he filled both roles with local community station KBOO and nationally with Free Speech Radio News. He's also published freelance print stories with Portland's alternative weekly newspaper Willamette Week and Planning Magazine. In 2007, Rob received two awards for investigative reporting from the Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists, and he was part of the award-winning team responsible for OPB's "Hunger Series." His current beats range from education to the environment, sports to land-use planning, politics to housing.