ABC Local 24: Cordova High School principal sues SCS over free speech

High school principal Barton Thorne reinstated following civil rights lawsuit – ABC 4 News

In Thorne v. Shelby County Board of Education, Liberty Justice Center is representing a Memphis-area high school principal suing his school district after he was placed on administrative leave for speaking with his students about the importance of free speech.

The following article written by Brooke Conrad appeared on ABC4 News on February 26, 2021.

High school principal Barton Thorne, who was suspended last month over comments he made about free speech in the wake of the Capitol riot, is returning to work for the first time in six weeks.

Thorne shared concerns about big tech companies’ ability to control information on their platforms during a Jan. 11 weekly homeroom video message to students and staff at Cordova High School in Tennessee. The comments came a few days after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, after which Facebook and Twitter suspended President Trump’s accounts, and Google, Apple and Amazon Web Services de-platformed the social media app Parler, which was popular among conservatives.

The day after his message, Shelby County Schools placed Thorne on administrative leave. Six weeks later, Thorne filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the district and Superintendent Joris Ray. Thorne’s suspension had resulted from a complaint from “one or several unknown SCS employees, parents, or students,” according to the lawsuit.

Within an hour of filing, Liberty Justice Center senior attorney Daniel Suhr said he received word of Thorne’s reinstatement at the school.

Suhr told Sinclair his firm had reached out to the school district several times before filing the suit, but the school never responded “in a substantive way.”

“Thankfully, they’re letting Principal Thorne back into the school and return to do what he loves, which is teach his students,” Suhr said.

Even though he has his job back, the case will continue, Suhr said.

“We’ve got a pretty simple ask: we want him to be not just restored to his job, but restored to his reputation. And hopefully, the school district will do that, and then we can bring this case to a close,” he said.

The Liberty Justice Center is seeking an unspecified amount in damages.

During his over 9-minute-long video comments, Thorne expressed concerns about times in American history “where a small group of people decided what you can hear,” according to a transcript provided by the Liberty Justice Center. Thorne referenced McCarthyism, as well as a standoff between federal agents and a religious group called the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas during the 1990s. Thorne also referenced “totalitarian governments,” like “North Korea” and “China.”

“[I]n democracies, we talk about the marketplace of ideas. Well, what happens when the marketplace of ideas becomes a forced monopoly? What happens when you do not have dissenting opinions, when you do not have an exchange on competing ideas—how do you know if your ideas can stand on their own if there is no marketplace of ideas?” he said.

Thorne said he was not making those comments because he favored Parler or Trump or “anybody else who is being banned.”

The lawsuit alleges the school district directed Thorne not to talk to media “even though the SCS policies permit employees to talk to media in their individual capacity.”

One media report quotes a board member, Sheleah Harris, saying the events at the school were “extremely unfortunate and do not reflect the true value of” the school or the district.

“With the horrific events from last week at our U.S. Capitol, we have to ensure our children, teachers, and school staff remain in a consistent environment that promotes safety, cultural sensitivity, and represents the highest level of excellence,” Harris said in a statement, according to Commercial Appeal . “As leaders, we must be intentional about creating spaces for our students to discuss and process events that take place in our country and community.”

Suhr said the school needs to make up for damages against Thorne’s reputation.

“The school district here, I think, has an obligation to apologize to Mr. Thorne and really to explain to students that what he said was appropriate and right — that free speech is important in our society,” Suhr said.

During his video message, Thorne explicitly denounced the Capitol riots, saying they displayed “ignorance at the highest levels.”

“I don’t know too many people that are going to be okay with what happened,” he said, according to the transcript. “I don’t care what side you agree with, we don’t practice sedition, we don’t attack our legislature.”

Shelby County Schools is the largest public school district in Tennessee and is one of the 25 largest nationwide.

When asked for comment, Shelby County Schools said it “does not comment on pending litigation.”

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