Mitchell Ryan filed suit last week alleging that its policies about comments during public comments at board meetings violate his First Amendment rights. While the board will allow speakers to name employees if they speak in support of them, it forbids speakers from criticizing any employee by name.
The rules state, “Attacks of a personal nature against Board members, GCISD staff, students or other citizens will not be allowed or tolerated. Speakers must refrain from mentioning specific names of staff members during their comments.” The board asks residents to follow the grievance process instead.
Ryan asserts that this policy is viewpoint discrimination because only comments criticizing GCISD staff are disallowed.
In his decision to deny the TRO, U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman admonished GCISD but stopped short of actually restraining them, Ryan’s attorney stated. The denial of the restraining order does not stop the case from proceeding.
“The reflexive action of the board to enforce and expand its viewpoint discrimination and restrictions on speech at a time when public debate is so impassioned is the exact wrong approach for public leaders to take,” Ryan said in a statement to The Texan. “I am encouraged that the court is taking this issue seriously but am disappointed the judge did not take action prior to tonight’s hearing.”
An evidentiary hearing on a preliminary injunction is currently scheduled for October 12.
The specific impetus for the suit took place at the August 23rd board meeting where Ryan attempted to make comments naming Principal James Whitfield, principal of GCISD’s Colleyville Heritage High School (CHHS).
GCISD School Board President Jorge Rodriguez interrupted and barred Ryan from continuing his comments as soon as he mentioned Whitfield, but allowed another speaker, Coco Roa, to name Whitfield several times when speaking in support of him.
Ryan plans to attend the next board meeting, scheduled for September 27, at which he plans to address issues regarding Whitfield. He asked the court for the TRO to prevent the board from hindering his remarks. He told The Texan that he’ll also be addressing inappropriate messages he received from district representatives, but he will refrain from naming the member specifically.
Whitfield has been the center of a controversy since the summer when area residents and school district parents raised concerns about the way critical race theory and its offshoots were being incorporated within the district and Whitfield’s involvement in that.
One specific concern raised was about a letter by Whitfield to the Heritage Middle School and CHHS communities in the summer of 2020 after the death of George Floyd, which cited systemic racism and asked them to “commit to being an anti-racist.”
At the meeting when Whitfield was named, Rodriguez asked the speaker to refrain from naming specific employees in his criticisms.
The board suspended Whitfield about a month later, but stated,“The decision to place Dr. Whitfield on administrative leave was not a result of statements made by members of the public, including those who spoke at recent meetings of the GCISD Board of Trustees. Nor was the decision made in response to allegations Dr. Whitfield was teaching Critical Race Theory…”
Whitfield responded to the allegations writing on his Facebook page, “I am not the CRT (Critical Race Theory) Boogeyman. I am the first African American to assume the role of Principal at my current school in its 25-year history, and I am keenly aware of how much fear this strikes in the hearts of a small minority who would much rather things go back to the way they used to be.”
Earlier this week, the GCISD school board voted to recommend non-renewal of the principal’s contract with the school district. This is the first step in a two-step process which includes an appeal at which Whitfield will be able to present his responses to allegations against him.
Superintendent Robin Ryan again said that the recommendation for not renewing the contract was not related to the public comments about critical race theory. These personnel matters are usually handled in executive session, but Rodriguez said Whitfield and his attorneys had asked that it be explained in the open meeting.
The reasons publicly given for the contract non-renewal recommendation were for deficiencies in evaluation, insubordination, failure to comply with board policies and administrative regulations, failure to meet the district’s standards of professional conduct, and activities that impair the employee’s effectiveness because of publicity.
Whitfield has appeared in media interviews, including one with MSNBC’s Joy Reid. Reid connected public comments critical of Whitfield because of critical race theory and his suspension a month later. Whitfield told Reid he has been shocked by the events that have occurred since the July meeting with people calling for his job.
Whitfield had been employed by GCISD since 2018, when he was the assistant principal of CHHS. He served as principal of Heritage Middle School in 2019 before returning to CHHS as principal in 2020.
Disclosure: Unlike almost every other media outlet, The Texan is not beholden to any special interests, does not apply for any type of state or federal funding, and relies exclusively on its readers for financial support. If you’d like to become one of the people we’re financially accountable to, click here to subscribe.
Kim Roberts is a reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.