The district was accused of violating First Amendment rights of residents whose comments were excluded from the district's Facebook page, the Herald-Banner first reported on Thursday.
The Joneses had planned to file a federal lawsuit against the district on Friday, but late Friday afternoon, they reversed course and said they are grateful the district had "admitted its wrongdoing and that they have restored the community's First Amendment right to publicly debate important issues."
The comments that were deleted from public view were part of several discussions on the district's Facebook page about the proposed GISD tax swap and drop, made by residents who were arguing against the tax measure or were posing questions either about the district's marketing of the proposal or about the district's handling of financial matters.
The Joneses said Friday that while some residents and district employees have criticized them for their actions, it is incumbent upon taxpayers to stand up for and protect citizens' Constitutional rights, particularly when a taxpayer-supported entity is violating those rights, and in this case, they felt the need to take a stand.
"GISD's Facebook page is an important public forum for free speech where visitors are told that GISD wants 'to know what's on your mind,' and people are encouraged to engage in 'meaningful dialogue,'" Cliff and
Superintendent Liggins, in his statement released via Facebook Thursday night, seemed to acknowledge that the district had indeed gone too far by removing unfavorable comments from the public tax swap discussions on the Facebook page.
The first letter the district received from
"Upon careful review, we agreed with the demand and restored posting rights for all Facebook visitors," Liggins wrote in his statement. "We respect and uphold first amendment rights for all individuals. We apologize for our actions, which have led to this conflict. This was never our intent."
He added that he has "directed GISD staff to establish a group of stakeholders to work together and craft a set of social media standards, which we will use to guide our future actions and communications on social media."
Liggins said the district had been working on a public apology -- in response to the second letter it had received from the Joneses' attorney -- to be sent by noon Friday, when it learned of the Joneses' plan to go forward with a lawsuit, as reported in Thursday's Herald-Banner. He indicated that the district's understanding was that the deadline for the apology was Friday, not Wednesday, as was initially reported.
This was important, the Joneses said, because they felt strongly that the censoring activity needed to be fully resolved or officially taken to the courts before
After those deadlines were conveyed earlier this week, neither the district nor its attorney responded any further, the Joneses said.
Late Friday afternoon, the district's attorney,
She added, "GISD appreciates the decision that has been made to resolve this matter without litigation."
GISD administrators declined to answer 10 questions from the Herald-Banner about the conflict that were submitted to administrators on Wednesday and again on Friday; the questions included whether the district had any social media policy in place, whether those managing the social media sites had been trained for that role, and whether the district would provide a timeline of events that occurred leading up to the Joneses' decision to file a lawsuit. The Herald-Banner also asked who had been supervising the social media actions of the district, who was making decisions about the handling of the Joneses' complaint, and whether the board had been consulted.
"With regard to the list of questions, GISD asks that you refer to the communication on Facebook that you reference in your email," Castillo wrote in her email late Friday. No other response was provided to the questions.
The Joneses lamented that the district required the threat of a lawsuit to comply with the
"It is a shame that it took getting lawyers involved, the threat of a lawsuit, and a front-page newspaper article to finally get GISD to own up and do what's right," said the couple's statement Friday afternoon. "It should have been obvious from the beginning that public officials cannot just silence political opinions they disagree with. We love our community and will continue to be engaged with issues that affect
The Joneses added that they "continue to have serious concerns about the way GISD's finances are handled ... we respect GISD's teachers and staff, believe they deserve annual pay raises, and also believe they deserve a transparent budgeting process each year. The best way to achieve that is transparency and accountability, not a tax swap scheme."
They emphasized in their statement and in an interview that they were glad to put the whole thing behind them and relieved that the district had pledged to allow open and free debate on its public Facebook page.
"We are thankful to see GISD acknowledge their misconduct, correct their mistake, and issue a public apology," the Joneses said. "We do not intend to pursue this matter further."
Former board member had her comments 'censored'
Prior to Thursday's report, the Herald-Banner reviewed screenshots revealing numerous instances of deleted comments -- each of which was unfavorable to the swap and drop or the district's handling of the proposal's marketing. Numerous residents complained that the practice violated free speech rights, on the district's Facebook page and in messages to the Herald-Banner starting in late September.
Not long afterward, some residents were blocked from commenting on the district page at all, they said. None of the deleted comments seen by the Herald-Banner contained any of the types of content that violated the district's policy for Facebook discussion.
One of the discussion comments deleted from the Greenville ISD Facebook page belonged to former Greenville ISD school board member
Overstreet's deleted comment, which was shared with the Herald-Banner, criticized the proposed tax rate swap and said that it was wrong to claim that those who are against the tax measure are also against providing pay raises for teachers -- a claim frequently made by swap supporters and members of the Political Action Committee formed to help rally voter support for the measure.
Overstreet's comment also stated she had been denied requests for information that had been made to administration as it related to the district's budget.
On Monday, after the district received the first letter from the Joneses' attorney, the district took the Facebook page offline briefly; it re-appeared Monday afternoon with a few of
In a 1988 case, Meyer v. Grant, the
School districts and other public entities can limit freedom of speech by setting restrictions regarding "time, place and manner" of speech, but restrictions cannot favor a specific political view and must allow for alternative methods of communication, the Supreme Court said in a 1977 ruling,
More recently, a federal case was filed against President
Federal judges at the
Because it was ruled that a social media platform was considered a public forum, judges also ruled that it was unconstitutional for Trump to block users "based on their political speech." Trump has submitted an appeal to the May ruling.
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