Professor seeks only $1 and chance to speak to board from lawsuit

John Suayan, Galveston Bureau Aug. 5, 2009, 6:00am

GALVESTON – A College of the Mainland professor and his wife are suing the school and its board of trustees in federal court for $1 for infringing on their First Amendment rights.

David Michael and Rona Smith allege the board denied the plaintiffs the opportunity to speak at a meeting back in June.

"The defendants' conduct is in violation of basic and fundamental constitutional rights, and represents a prior restraint on the plaintiffs' speech," the suit, which was filed on July 24, states.

The Smiths came before the board on June 22 to address changes in policy, the suit says.

Chief among the changes are converting classified employees "at will," which was different from previous policy.

The policy changes also dealt with non-renewal of employee contracts, grievances and the employees' rights to present matters to the board of trustees.

David Smith, who teaches government, expressed opposition and concern about the changes.

According to the original petition, he attempted to have new items placed on the agenda only to have them repeatedly shot down by campus officials.

"After the attempts to place the items on the board agenda failed, the plaintiffs felt they had a right as citizens to address their elected officials in the public comment sections of the board meeting," the complaint says.

It adds David Michael Smith got his chance to speak, but the board chairperson would not let him proceed.

"Smith asked the chair whether she was discriminating on the basis of content," the suit says. "The chair then informed Smith that he would not be allowed to speak."

"The chair stated that she had a right to control the agenda. The chair also stated she was not going to have a legal debate 'with you, Dr. Smith.'"

Rona Smith went to her husband's defense only to be reportedly silenced herself.

The plaintiffs evoke board policy which states that "the college district shall take no action to abridging the freedom of speech or the right to petition the board to redress grievances" in addition to the Texas Open Meetings Act.

"Under the Texas Open Meetings Act, public comments and the right of the general public to address the board is beyond dispute," the suit says.

In addition to the dollar, the Smiths seek declaratory judgments and findings that the board's actions violated school policies, state laws, and the United States and Texas Constitutions.

Galveston attorney Anthony P. Griffin is representing the plaintiffs.

Case No. 3:09-CV-152

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