Lakota parent who is Butler County deputy sheriff sues school board over freedom of speech
LIBERTY TOWNSHIP, Ohio (WXIX) - A Lakota parent who is a deputy with the Butler County Sheriff’s Office filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the school board.
Brian Oswald alleges the Lakota Local School Board violated his freedom of speech when he was cut off from speaking against the district’s mask policy at the board’s Sept. 27 meeting.
“The Rules do not prohibit participants from addressing the audience while speaking. As this example illustrates, the School Board fabricated and invented a rule and thereby restrained Oswald’s speech so he could not criticize the School Board or its policies,” the suit states. “The School Board continues to fabricate rules in order to frustrate and chill speech.”
Oswald alleges he was then defamed when the school district filed a formal complaint about him with the Butler County Sheriff’s Office.
His suit seeks a court order prohibiting the school board from allegedly violating others’ rights; $500,000 in damages, attorneys fees and court costs.
“On September 29, 2021, Oswald was made aware from his employer, the Butler County Sheriff’s Office, that a formal complaint had been filed against him by the School District for his conduct during the September 27, 2021, School Board meeting. The Butler County Sheriff’s Office launched an internal affairs investigation into Oswald based upon the false accusations of the School Board.”
In addition to the $500,000, Oswald is seeking:
- A declaration that the school board’s actions constitute a violation of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights
- Injunctive relief precluding the school board from restraining Oswald’s speech and offices and from otherwise denying his right to contact, petition, and access its officials or school employees
- Injunctive relief enjoining the school board from placing unbridled discretion in the presiding officer to restrain speech based upon its overbroad, vague, and content-based rules
- An award of reasonable attorney fees
- Litigation costs and expenses
- Any other actual damages or equitable relief the court deems fit under the circumstance
FOX19 NOW left requests for comment with the school board, sheriff’s office and Oswald’s attorney.
“We were notified of the lawsuit this morning and are in the process of reviewing it with our attorneys. We have no other comment at this time,” Lakota spokeswoman Betsy Fuller wrote in an email response.
A few hours later, Fuller reached out to us and added to her comments.
“I wanted to expand on my earlier email in response to your request for comment about the lawsuit recently filed against the Lakota Board of Education,” she wrote in another email.
“Our attorneys are currently reviewing a lawsuit filed by a Lakota parent against the Board of Education. The allegations in the complaint are a gross mischaracterization of what actually happened at the September 27 board meeting and they will be dealt with accordingly in court.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has forced districts across the country to make difficult decisions as students return to the classroom. Understandably, this has led to significant and, at times, heated debates in communities. Lakota has not been immune from that. But the Board’s top priority has been, and will always be, the safety of Lakota students and staff.
“The Board invites and welcomes public comment from the Lakota community. Like all school districts, the Board has a policy that sets forth rules that must be met in order for District residents to speak. Unlike other districts, Lakota actually provides two different opportunities for public comment at its meetings. There is nothing unlawful about the Lakota Local School Board’s regulation of public participation at its meetings. The Board will defend decisions it believes to be in the best interest of the Lakota community.”
Oswald’s attorney said it was too soon in the process to comment.
A spokeswoman for the Butler County Sheriff’s Office, Sgt. Kim Peters, said our request for details on Oswald’s length of employment, current assignment and personnel file was referred all to their paralegal. She confirmed Oswald is a deputy sheriff.
FOX19 NOW also put in a request for comment into Sheriff Richard Jones.
He said he was not going to discuss it yet but would later this week.
On Friday, Lakota officials canceled Monday night’s school board meeting to instead have a “community conversation” on civility in public discussions of school issues, the district’s website shows.
“Join us for our first community conversation of the school year on Monday, Oct. 25 at 6:30 p.m. Our facilitator will lead both small and large group discussions around communicating with one another with respect and civility in a divisive time,” the website states.
The district website has guidelines for public speakers:
“We welcome comments and questions at Board Meetings during our public participation section of the agenda. Public participants must be residents of the District or Lakota staff, and have a legitimate interest in the action of the Board. Public comment is limited to three minutes. Public comment is available for those who attend the meeting in person.
“In general, the board oversees district-wide issues and policies. If you have individual concerns about a specific situation or student, it’s best to first talk with the teacher, building principal, or school administrator. Lakota’s goal is to work together with parents to resolve issues quickly, and staff members closest to the situation are oftentimes better able to do so.
However, if you still have questions or concerns after working with the staff member, please contact the superintendent or assistant superintendent.”
A copy of Lakota’s public participation policy was filed with the lawsuit.
The policy, which was last updated in May 2018, states: “All statements shall be directed to the presiding officer; no person may address or question Board members individually.”
The presiding officer may:
- Interrupt, warn, or terminate a participant’s statement when the statement is too lengthy, personally directed, abusive, obscene, or irrelevant
- Request any individual to leave the meeting when that person does not observe reasonable decorum or is disruptive to the conduct of the meeting
- Request the assistance of law enforcement officers in the removal of a disorderly person when that person’s conduct interferes with the orderly progress of the meeting
- Call for a recess or an adjournment to another time when the lack of public decorum so interferes with the orderly conduct of the meeting as to warrant such action.
The policy also states:
“The portion of the meeting during which the participation of the public is invited will be at the discretion of the Board. All those wishing to address the Board within the time limits prescribed will be heard before the Board responds. The presiding officer or members of the Board may respond immediately to questions or comments as appropriate or may instruct the Superintendent or Treasurer to research the topic further and report back to the Board and speaker.”
A video showing the Sept. 27 school board meeting and exchange between Oswald and Board President Kelley Casper is posted on YouTube:
Oswald: “I’m gonna speak with the parents. First of all, if your-”
School Board President Kelley Casper: “Mr. Oswald you have to address the board.”
Oswald: “I want to remind you in a public hearing, public setting right now of New York (Times) vs. Sullivan SCOTUS ruling. Thank you.”
School Board President: “You have to address the board.”
Oswald: “I’m gonna speak to the parents now wearing masks, do you want your kids to wear mask-”
School Board President: “Mr. Oswald, that was your first warning, you have to address the board.”
Oswald: “Now parents, if the masks work, then the masks work, you don’t have any problems. Now, parents, if you want your kids unmasked, go ahead and unmask them. You are the parents, you know what’s best.”
School Board President: “Mr. Oswald, please address the board and not the parents.”
Oswald: “That’s Liberty, that’s freedom, do what you want, so I don’t trample on your rights you don’t trample on mine. Parents, there is no mandate after-”
School Board President: “Officer, can you please remove Mr. Oswald from the room because I’ve given you two warnings.”
Oswald: “This is now- I’m being reprimanded and my freedom of speech has been violated right now under New York versus Sullivan. This is on a recorded line.”
School Board President: “OK. Mr. Oswald, can you please sit down. You have forfeited your time because you did not follow what our policies are. I read the policies, the policy states you have to address the board, not the parents.”
Oswald: “Are you a parent?”
School Board President: “No, I am not a parent of a school child right now, my children have luckily graduated and have a great job.”
Oswald: “Okay, I’m speaking to all of the young parents out there, too.”
School Board President: “Officer can you please remove Mr. Osward from the room. I think that we are now going to suspend with public comments. Do I have a motion to suspend with public comments?”
Oswald: “Parents, parents.....” turns to the audience and keeps talking.
School Board President: “OK, you may leave, we will continue with public comments but you have to follow the rules, please. He was addressing the parents - "
School Board Member Brad Lovell: “Mrs. Casper, could you please call the next name?”
School Board Member Lovell: “There is not a second motion” (to end public comment). Please call the next name.”
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