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Pryor hearing testimony raises questions on limits of free speech

Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Anthony Smith defended the school ban against parent activist Brandon Pryor in federal court Thursday, saying Pryor threatened him along with other administrators he bullied and intimidated.

In a heated phone call in August, Smith said, Pryor wanted the district to transfer students and resources from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College high school to nearby Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy to bolster enrollment and add an athletic facility to the academy, where Pryor is a co-founder. Smith told Pryor, “That’s not how we conduct business,” and converting DMLK from a middle and high school back into a middle school would involve a lengthy process.

“He was agitated,” Smith said. “He said, ‘If I see you, I’m gonna beat your ass.’ I said, that’s ridiculous, and hung up.”

The two have had a long, turbulent relationship as both men have acknowledged in their separate testimony this week in U.S. District Court, where Pryor is seeking an injunction to lift the restrictions that the district imposed on him in October.

Smith said Pryor never physically assaulted him, and the two had several productive discussions about issues involving equity, enrollment and facilities in far Northeast Denver schools.

But other times Pryor’s frustration with Smith devolved into mutually profanity-laced arguments.

“He has sent me text messages calling me a snake, a sellout, that I’m not Black enough or whatever,” Smith said.

Under questioning from DPS attorney Jared Ellis, Smith said he agreed with the Oct. 18 letter banning Pryor from coaching football and from school property other than the schools his children attend. It is not retaliation against an outspoken critic of DPS, Smith said, but a necessary step to protect administrators and staff who he said have been bullied, intimidated and harassed by Pryor.

“Our employees need to feel safe to be able to do their jobs,” Smith said. “We need a safe and welcoming school environment and need to hold people accountable for their actions going forward.”

The court case turns on what constitutes First Amendment speech protection versus what degree of threats, harassment and bullying justify the kind of restrictions that have been imposed on Pryor.

He and his attorney, his wife Samantha Lorraine Pryor, argue that he never harmed anyone, and his rhetoric is motivated by zealous advocacy for underserved students of color. DPS attorneys, who note that Pryor is now able to speak to the school board and attend public events, are making a case that his repeated clashes with administrators and staff have gone way over the line, no matter how well intentioned.

Judge Kane will settle the free speech vs. school safety arguments once testimony concludes. Even if the ban is lifted, the Pryors say they will continue to press their lawsuit against the district as they seek undetermined financial damages to redress the reputational damage to Brandon Pryor.

Over the course of testimony by Pryor and several current and former DPS administrators, the case also has touched on the complex educational history of Far Northeast Denver since 2010, when the school board closed Montbello High School and launched several small high schools that continue to operate, even as Montbello High reopened last year.

Other issues have included racial justice, the toll of youth violence, district politics, and even the value many in the area place on the success of high school football.

The hearing continues Friday, when DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero is expected to testify as the top administrator who is chiefly responsible for the ban.