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Citing safety, DPS appeals court order lifting Brandon Pryor ban

Denver Public Schools has asked a federal judge to reconsider his order that the district immediately lift restrictions against critic Brandon Pryor, arguing the ruling encourages Pryor and others to “harass, threaten and bully” school employees.

In a 23-page motion filed this month in U.S. District Court, DPS asked Judge John Kane to suspend his recent order against the district until a higher court rules on an appeal of Kane’s ruling.

The motion is highly critical of Kane’s ruling last month, when he said Denver Public Schools violated Pryor’s free speech rights and retaliated against him with restrictions that were not justified by Pryor’s conduct.

DPS attorney Andrew Ringel goes far beyond Pryor to argue that Kane is interfering with the district’s independent oversight of schools and threatens school safety by usurping the district’s rules for school visitors and volunteers and encouraging others to harass district employees.

“In these days of school shootings, bomb threats and disruption of school facilities throughout the United States, DPS must be able to determine appropriate rules for access to schools and other district facilities,” Ringel wrote.

“(Kane’s) order will encourage and embolden other community members critical of DPS or the current DPS administration to threaten, intimidate, harass and bully DPS staff and employees and to interfere with DPS administration and operations in an effort to gain attention for their own agendas,” Ringel wrote.

“This, in turn, will undermine the safe and welcoming environment DPS is trying to create and disturb the tranquility needed for a productive learning environment.”

The case dates back to October, when DPS banned Pryor from attending school board meetings, contacting board members and administrators, coaching football and visiting the STEAM Academy in far Northeast Denver that he co-founded. District officials cited a pattern of “harassment, bullying, intimidation and threats” by Pryor against administrators in imposing the ban.

The district modified the restrictions against Pryor in November, allowing him to attend board meetings and contact district officials. But DPS continued banning him from coaching football and from visiting the STEAM Academy.

In his order lifting that ban, Kane acknowledged that district officials have 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 in his Dec. 23 ruling.

During the seven-day hearing on Pryor’s request for a preliminary injunction against the district, witnesses including Superintendent Alex Marrero and other administrators testified that Pryor had been warned long before the October ban that the district would not tolerate his offensive behavior toward employees.

“Based on (Pryor’s) prior history, it is likely he will continue to threaten, intimidate, harass and bully DPS employees in the future,” Ringel wrote in his motion. “Indeed, the order is likely to embolden (Pryor) and make him less likely to moderate his own behavior because he can now argue any actions taken by DPS are retaliatory and violate the order.”

In an interview Thursday, Pryor dismissed the motion by DPS as a rehash of what was argued during the hearing.

“These arguments are baseless,” he said. “They are saying Judge Kane isn’t able to determine what the law is? And I’m 100% sure that Judge Kane applied the law correctly, and 100% sure DPS will be smacked down by the 10th Circuit (Court of Appeals).”

Pryor has argued that his clashes with the district are protected by the First Amendment but is justified by his advocacy of more resources and attention to Black students and families in far Northeast Denver.

In his motion, Ringel characterized Kane’s order as ambiguous and untenable. If officials comply with Kane’s order as written, Ringel said Pryor can continue bullying employees, and DPS could face liability claims if those employees feel unsafe.

Kane has not yet ruled on the motion to suspend his order. Whether the judge grants the district’s request or not, DPS has appealed his order to the Denver-based U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

A date for that appeal has not been set.

If the appeal is rejected by the higher court, DPS will be ordered to lift restrictions on Pryor and comply with the rest of Kane’s ruling. That also would pave the way for Pryor to press his lawsuit seeking undetermined financial damages against the district, alleging that his rights were violated and his reputation harmed by the ban and ensuing publicity.

Denver Public Schools reports that it has paid the Hall & Evans law firm $17,304 to date to represent the district in the Pryor case (that includes Ringel, attorney Jared Ellis and associated costs).

Pryor was represented by his wife, attorney Samantha Lorraine Pryor, during the hearing last month, but he said his attorney going forward will be Mari Newman of the Killmer, Lane & Newman law firm as his wife likely will be called as a witness in the upcoming appeal.