‘After School Satan Club’: Ohio AG urges Lebanon allow free speech for protesters too
WARREN COUNTY, Ohio (WXIX) - The controversial “After School Satan Club” that meets regularly at a Lebanon elementary school upset some parents and religious leaders and now it’s drawn the attention of Ohio’s top lawyer.
Attorney General Dave Yost clearly isn’t a fan of the group, either, describing it in a letter to Lebanon Superintendent Isaac Seevers as “this attention-seeking afterschool club.”
However, he wrote in a tweet, he thinks it’s “wrong” the superintendent discouraged parents from their First Amendment rights to protest on campus while supporting the First Amendment rights of the “After School Satan Club” to meet there.
Both rights should be upheld, he wrote in a letter Friday to Seevers, according to a copy obtained by FOX19.
Before the club held its inaugural meeting after classes last week at Donovan Elementary School, prompting the superintendent to put out a lengthy written public plea to not protest on school property.
In the same letter to parents and the community, Seevers mentions that school officials “have reviewed our school safety plan and met with Lebanon Police officials to develop an Emergency Operations Plan for this event.”
Seevers also wrote: “Please remember that we serve a young student population and some of them may have no idea why adults are gathering in support or opposition on Thursday afternoon.”
“This rubs against the First Amendment,” Yost’s letter states.
“The area around the school is a public forum. Public streets, sidewalks, and parks have ‘time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions,’” the attorney general wrote.
His letter cites case law pointing out that “such places, which occupy a special position in terms of First Amendment protection, the government’s ability to restrict expressive activity is very limited.”
These content-based restrictions on political speech in a public forum are rarely upheld in court, he noted. Restrictions must be necessary to serve a compelling state interest and be narrowly drawn to achieve that end.
“The government can more easily restrict gatherings or protests on a content-neutral basis, and can usually say that gatherings must conclude by sunset, or may not use loud-speakers overnight. But a restriction is not content-neutral if it’s concerned with the “direct impact of speech on its audience” or ‘listeners’ reactions to speech,” Yost wrote.
The superintendent’s letter “makes clear that the gathering-ban is designed to prevent confusion in the young student population. That is a content-based restriction. It is content-based for another reason too. ‘It blinks reality to say … that a blanket prohibition on the use of streets and sidewalks where speech on only one politically controversial topic is likely to occur—and where that speech can most effectively be communicated—is not content based,’” Yost said, quoting more case law.
“The purpose of the gathering-ban—when the Satan Club is meeting, next to the school—is clearly not intended to address discussions about mask policies, the science curriculum, or the band budget. It’s to prohibit discussion opposing the Satan Club. To be sure, the ask is phrased as simply that—an ask.
“But such a strong statement from the highest-ranking school official, intended to protect the school’s controversial decision, sent to all Lebanon families, in coordination with the Lebanon Police, is just the sort of government policy that chills the exercise of First Amendment rights, even if it “fall[s] short of a direct prohibition,’” Yost wrote.
“I acknowledge that you have a duty, as do I, to protect Lebanon’s children from harm. But the criminal law applied with equal force on Thursday, January 27th, as it does every day of the year. Because the police are capable of addressing any rowdy behavior, see, e.g., Ohio Rev. Code 2917.11 (disorderly conduct), the school has yet another reason for allowing speech to take place.
“The decision to allow the Satan Club to rent Lebanon school facilities was, predictably, a decision many people don’t like. And under our Constitution, they have a right to say so, in public, without being steered miles down the road.
“During the next meeting of this attention-seeking afterschool club, I strongly encourage you to allow the speech that American citizens are entitled to engage in.”
A spokesperson for Lebanon City Schools wrote in a statement, “We are reviewing Mr. Yost’s letter with our legal counsel and will consider issuing a response if we believe it is necessary.”
Here is Attorney General Yost’s letter to him in its entirety:
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