Tuesday, January 31, 2023

PA: Penncrest Reading Restrictions May Face Legal Issues

Penncrest School District is located in the NW corner of the state, located mostly in Crawford County. It's a mid-sized (around 3500 students K-12) district that was stitched together out of several very small rural districts

They've been in the news because their board has seen fit to try to protect students from Objectionable Books (which seems to mean especially any that mention LGBTQ persons at all). You can get the full back story here, but we'll need to move ahead, because Things have been Happening.

Short version. After expressing social media outrage over a display of LGBTQ books in the school library, a board member proposed a new restrictive policy on books in the library--twice. Folks on all sides spoke up, but the board went ahead with the restrictions. If you've watched any of these dramas unfold elsewhere, you'll recognize some of the features. "But the policy doesn't actually mention gay folks," say people whose other comments make it clear that when they say "sexually explicit" that includes "mentioning LGBTQ persons ever." There's also the usual blurring of lines by which everything that includes a hint of anything folks don't like is labeled pornography, as if all things that mention sex at all ever are always total pornography. 

The high school newspaper caught the district in a moment of self-contradiction. The Facebook posts in which board member David Valesky called homosexuality "totally evil" and suggested it's wrong to suggest it's "okay" became the subject of a lawsuit. Part of the district's defense in that lawsuit was, "Hey, school boards don't have the power to ban books, so there's no threat implied by Valesky's post." That was, of course, before the board decided they totally have the ability to ban books after all.

You could ask the district's lawyer about his argument in that case, but he's quit.

Attorney George Joseph, of the Quinn Law Firm, told the board that their new policy, plus their anti-trans in sports policy, could open them up to some legal trouble. At a meeting, two board members called the solicitor's opinion "a joke," "worthless," and "not even legal." 

Recent actions by the board have highlighted a fundamental disagreement by a majority of the Board with the legal analysis and opinions of our office and, in our analysis, significantly compromised our ability to provide legal ongoing services to the District and to the existing School Board.

He goes on to explain the specific advice that he gave which was ignored and to explain that this is not personal. It's his job to give advice; he knows they don't have to take it, as has been the case in "several such instances."

Nevertheless, I must take exception to the manner in which some individual Board members expressed their disagreement with the most recent legal opinion I rendered.

That expression was "unconscionable" to him. So the board now needs a new solicitor.

They're working on it, sort of. We know that because at this point, they've attracted enough attention that USA Today's legal department is filing Right To Know law requests (because, see, you can do that with a public school), and that turned up emails from board president Luigi DeFrancesco to the Independence Law Center, the legal arm of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a right wing religious advocacy group. 

It would make sense to turn to this group, because Penncrest's new policy appears to be based on a controversial policy in the Central Bucks County School District, and it appears that policy was co-written by an attorney from the Independence Law Center. The lawyer that DeFrancesco reached out to, Jeremy Samek, is the same lawyer who apparently had his hand in the Central Bucks policy.

The Pennsylvania Family Institute website says, under the heading of culture

We believe a flourishing, prosperous culture requires limited government, focused on its chief role to restrain evil and promote the good. This is best described as “ordered liberty,” reflected in Pennsylvania’s motto, “Virtue, Liberty and Independence.”

It's an interesting interpretation of "freedom" and "limited government" and reminds me of Wilhoit's Law, which says

Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.

While their original law firm has said they'll continue to provide some services for the district until they find a new lawyer or lawyers, the district has put out some requests for proposals from firms. Though at least Valesky made clear his feelings about the legal issues on the same night the new policies were passed.

"If we go to court over it, so be it,” he said, “because at the end of the day we’re standing up for what’s right and for what God has said is right and true.”

I'm sure the story will continue to unfold. Stay tuned. 

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