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School board members immune

Members of the Buchanan County School Board are protected from a reporter’s civil rights suit challenging his ban from school property, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled May 14.

Reporter Earl Cole was observed on school grounds taking photographs, and in 2006, he published an article questioning why a Buchanan County school board member sent his child to an out-of-district school. The board banned Cole from all school property in a resolution that accused him of hiding around trees and bushes. The board later said Cole would be banned “during operational hours,” except upon express invitation, to attend a public board meeting or to vote.

When Cole claimed the board was retaliating for his exercise of First Amendment rights, Chief U.S. District Judge James P. Jones denied the board members’ plea of sovereign immunity.

In an unpublished opinion by Judge Allyson Duncan, the appellate court reversed the Abingdon judge’s decision. Pointing out that the U.S. Supreme Court in January streamlined the test for qualified immunity, Duncan said Cole had no “clearly established right” to unqualified access to school property.

Virginia law specifically authorizes a school board to restrict access to school property,” Duncan wrote, and the school board also had inherent authority to restrict access to the property it controls.

By Deborah Elkins

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