The Oldham County Board of Education (OCBE) recently settled a lawsuit filed in September 2022 by local dad Micah Cain, who contended the school board violated his Constitutional rights.
Cain, who has two children in the district, filed the lawsuit Sept. 19 of last year in the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. He claimed OCBE violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights for allegedly banning him from multiple meetings. He sought compensatory damages and attorney fees, among other demands. Superintendent Jason Radford confirmed May 17 that the lawsuit was settled and dismissed. The district denied to comment on the settlement figure, but Cain claimed in a phone interview that both parties agreed to $20,000.
Cain said the lawsuit was “never about the monetary amount,” but about sending a message and setting a precedent.
“My whole purpose this whole time was to try to set a precedent going forward where in the future, there will be a little bit more pause [by the school board] before this happens to other parents who are told they can’t speak,” Cain said in a phone interview. “I am satisfied with [the lawsuit results]. [From the time] I filed the lawsuit, there have been a lot of wins for parents who wanted to get involved with the school board, [particularly] the recent [general] election where two candidates who were very outspoken about parental involvement and local issues got elected to those positions. It sounds like the replacement for [the seat of former Board Chairwoman] Joyce Fletcher has been a great board member as well.”
Cain also said 90% of his attorney work was done pro-bono.
OCS declined to comment on the results of the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, submitted by attorneys Matt Miller-Novak and Jennifer M. Kinsley, cited publicly accessible YouTube streams ofprevious board meetings and a letter addressed to Cain from Student Services Director Eric Davis as key pieces of evidence. Kinsley, however, withdrew as council in January upon election to Judge for the Ohio First District Court of Appeals. Novak and Attorney Robert Thompson continued to represent Cain, according to court documents.
Cain’s lawsuit traced the origins of his complaint to the August and September 2021 regular-scheduled meetings, where OCBE weighed and ultimately decided to approve a mask mandate for students attending school.
He was one among numerous parents who used the public expression portion of OCBE meetings to share his disapproval of that decision.
It wasn’t until the Aug. 2021 meeting where Cain “booed” Board Chair Joyce Fletcher that the board ordered his first removal, according to the lawsuit.
In a recap of that meeting, the lawsuit claims the board allowed sustained applause for Student Service Director Eric Davis, who adopted a pro-district stance. Cain, it alleges, wasn’t afforded the same luxury.
“The Board’s response to reaction from the audience therefore varied based on the viewpoint the audience was expressing,” it reads. “Simply stated, the audience was permitted to loudly applaud and cheer during public participation for extended periods of time in support of positive comments, but the audience was prohibited from expressing very brief negative responses.”
Archival video of that meeting available on YouTube does show Davis receiving extended audience applause after his comments, to which Fletcher replied, “well said, Mr. Davis.”
Next to use public expression during that meeting is Denise Watts Wilson, followed by a 13-year-old student diagnosed with cancer.
As that student approached the stand, Fletcher said to her, “I apologize, but our audience is taking up time that is really yours now.”
That line elicited an audible boo from the audience; one the lawsuit claimed was made by Cain. A board member is then heard on camera calling for his removal.
Cain returned to the following Sept. 2021 OCBE meeting, where he did speak during public expression.
The lawsuit claimed that Cain prepared his statement with the expectation of three minutes for public expression, but learned during the meeting that time for all speakers had been reduced to two minutes.
It goes on to say that Cain went “approximately 20 seconds” over the time limit in finishing a quote from C.S. Lewis, adding that he “never threatened the Board and…spoke no fighting words.”
Archival YouTube footage of that meeting does show Cain talking past his allotted time and finishing the quote and returning to his seat just as Assistant Superintendent Brent Deaves begins to approach the podium.
The lawsuit then alleged that Cain was forced to leave the meeting.
“After his speech, Cain was again forced to leave the meeting by the Board,” it reads. The officer who required him to leave told him that he was being ejected from the meeting for going over his allotted two minutes of time.”
It was after the Sept. 27 meeting that Cain received a letter from Davis banning him from meetings until January of 2022, according to the lawsuit. Attorneys representing Cain attached included that letter as evidence.
“Due to your actions at the last Board of Education meeting, you are prohibited from attending meetings of the Board until January 2022,” the alleged letter reads. “Your outbursts ruing the board meeting were unacceptable and detracted from a safe environment for everyone.”
Violating those conditions, it continues, could result in “legal action for trespassing, harassment, and/or menacing.”
“I understand that parents are passionate about topics related to managing the pandemic during school,” the letter reads. “However, we cannot allow guests and speakers to create a hostile or unsafe environment for the Board members, employees, and other audience members.”
The contents of that letter, Cain’s attorneys argued, violated his First Amendment rights and Due Process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.
“The Board violated Cain’s First Amendment rights and unlawfully restrained critical speech,” the lawsuit reads. “The Board further violated Cain’s First Amendment right to receive information and access the government. Cain is entitled to damages, injunctive relief, a declaratory judgment, costs, and attorney fees.”