Denver Public Schools violated the free speech rights of activist Brandon Pryor, U.S. District Judge John Kane ruled Friday, ordering the district to immediately lift its restrictions against him.
The ruling amounted to a sweeping victory for Pryor over Colorado’s largest school district.
“I find that Mr. Pryor is likely to succeed on the merits of his First Amendment retaliation claim against defendants Superintendent (Alex) Marrero and Deputy (Anthony) Smith … and (they) are further enjoined from taking any other retaliatory action against Mr. Pryor, his family, or the (Robert F. Smith) STEAM Academy for pursing this lawsuit,” Kane concluded in an exhaustive 33-page ruling.
Kane’s order granting Pryor’s request for a preliminary injunction against DPS also calls for the district to “remediate the past restraints on Mr. Pryor’s expression, including but not limited to preparing and publishing a statement announcing to the public and especially the parents and families of the STEAM Academy that (DPS) erroneously issued the ban on Mr. Pryor and that (district officials) have rescinded the ban immediately.”
The ruling follows a seven-day hearing in Kane’s courtroom that was interrupted when Pryor was briefly hospitalized for a heart attack.
In October, the district banned Pryor from attending school board meetings, contacting board members and administrators, volunteer coaching football and visiting the STEAM Academy in far Northeast Denver that he co-founded. District officials cited a longer pattern of “harassment, bullying, intimidation and threats” by Pryor against administrators in imposing the ban.
Last month, the district modified the restrictions against Pryor after an appeal by his attorney, Samantha Lorraine Pryor, allowing him to attend board meetings and contact district officials. But DPS continued banning him from coaching football and from visiting the STEAM Academy.
Kane said the district did not go far enough in easing the original ban and ordered DPS to restore Pryor’s ability to coach and his access to the academy,
Earlier this week, in closing arguments, Samantha Pryor (Brandon Pryor’s wife) said that the ban was an unconstitutional prior restraint of speech in retaliation for outspoken criticism of district administrators.
“He was advocating for educational justice,” she said, adding that he has suffered “irreparable harm” to his reputation and his ability to coach and have access to the STEAM Academy.
DPS attorney Andrew Ringel countered during closing arguments that “Denver Public Schools has a duty to maintain a safe working environment” for administrators who testified that they felt harassed and threatened by Pryor.
“It is clear there was a reasonable fear (by employees) about their safety,” Ringel said.
One of those administrators is Antoinette Hudson, who was the regional instructional superintendent for Far Northeast Denver schools last year before moving to the DPS ombuds office. She testified last week that she felt threatened by Pryor last year on two occasions when he confronted her on the phone and later in person about issues at STEAM Academy, which was overseen by Hudson.
“He was yelling, irate, cursing,” said Hudson, who was visibly shaken on the witness stand recounting her feelings.
Kane acknowledged that the district has a responsibility to maintain a safe working environment for employees but said their complaints do not outweigh Pryor’s free speech rights.
“Mr. Pryor’s speech undoubtedly involves matters of public concern because it was directed at revealing official shortcomings in the public school system and pushing administrators to do better,” Kane said.
Denver Public Schools could not be reached for comment Friday.
Kane’s order paves the way for Pryor to press his lawsuit against DPS alleging his free speech rights were violated and his reputation harmed by the ban and ensuing publicity. Samantha Pryor said they will seek undetermined financial damages. A date is to be determined.
Last week, the Denver school board voted to relocate the STEAM Academy next fall from its current co-location at the Montbello Career and Technical High School at 4501 Airport Way to a bigger space at the former Barrett Elementary School near East 29th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.
Brandon Pryor said earlier this week that the new location is problematic because it is far from the families of current students, and he and other co-founders were not informed of the move prior to last week’s vote.
“There was no community engagement,” he said.
The STEAM Academy is a high school based on the principles of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) focused on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. District officials said the new location is necessary because the school’s current enrollment of 135 students in 9th and 10th grades will grow as 11th and 12th grades are added in the next two years, and that Barrett is an actual school building compared to the converted office building that now houses the STEAM Academy.