The Yamhill County Circuit Court has made a decision in a case filed last year by a Newberg teacher against the school district and four members of the school board. The judge ruled Thursday that a policy banning certain symbols displayed in schools is unconstitutional.
The case, filed by the ACLU of Oregon on behalf of Newberg school employee Chelsea Shotts in December 2021, challenges a policy approved by the school board last year. The policy bans employees from displaying “controversial” or “political” signs or symbols. The initial board conversations about the policy centered around banning Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ Pride flags.
A sign depicting a rainbow flag with a heart superimposed, along with the words “Be Known,” in Shotts’ classroom window at Dundee Elementary was the subject of the first complaint under the policy. At the time the complaint was filed, Shotts said both she, as a queer staff member, and students should be safe and supported.
“I will do everything in my power to create an environment that makes all students feel safe and supported so they can learn and thrive,” Shotts said. “I wish the entire board would join us in these efforts.”
The ACLU of Oregon and law firm Davis Wright Tremaine argued that the ban violates the Oregon Constitution. They filed a lawsuit against the school district and the four board members who voted for the policy — chair Dave Brown, vice chair Brian Shannon, Renee Powell and Trevor DeHart.
On Thursday, Yamhill County Circuit Court Judge Cynthia Easterday ruled that the policy is unconstitutional under Article 1, Section 8 of the Oregon Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of speech and the press.
Easterday also granted the school district’s and board member’s argument that the policy is not necessarily discriminatory under Article 1, Section 20 of the state constitution.
No final order has been made. One is expected soon.
The ACLU celebrated the ruling in a tweet Thursday, saying they await the court’s final order.
💥BREAKING: This morning, the Yamhill County Circuit Court concluded that Newberg School District's anti-display policy violates Article I, Section 8 of the Oregon Constitution. ✊ pic.twitter.com/XqAevRkRB7— ACLU of Oregon (@ACLU_OR) September 23, 2022
One of the board members, Renee Powell, said in an email to OPB that she was not aware of hearing and had “nothing to report at this time.” No one else from the board had gotten back to OPB by the time of publication.
Since the school board approved the policy in September 2021, tension and conflict has continued among school board members, district employees and those in the Newberg community. Four members of the school board voted to fire Supt. Joe Morelock last November, two board members faced recall elections in January, and since last year, dozens of staff members have resigned from the district, including several district administrators and principals from six of the district’s 10 schools.
The three board members who did not vote for the policy banning “controversial” or “political” symbols resigned over the course of the last year, alleging harassment. The remaining board members have been involved in multiple lawsuits.
The school board’s symbols policy also drew sharp comments from the Oregon State Board of Education, Oregon House Democrats, and the Oregon School Boards Association.
This story may be updated.