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Suit claims teacher was punished for criticizing school board member on Twitter

Updated February 17, 2023 - 6:57 pm

A Clark County School District teacher filed a lawsuit this month alleging “an impermissible suppression” of his political speech after he was placed on home assignment and investigated following a series of contentious exchanges on Twitter with a School Board candidate who was later elected.

Brett Gilman, an English language arts teacher at Garside Junior High School, is demanding a jury trial, monetary compensation and “a permanent injunction preventing CCSD from violating the constitutional rights of public employees,” according to a complaint filed this month in Clark County District Court.

After Katie Williams announced her candidacy for School Board, Gilman — who has been a teacher in the district for seven years — expressed criticism of Williams and her qualifications, according to the complaint.

The complaint alleges that all of Gilman’s posts were protected political speech and there was no basis for the school district or Williams to punish him.

Williams, who was elected to the board in November 2020, declined to comment Thursday.

The school district said Thursday it doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

“A teacher doesn’t lose their free speech rights just because they work at a public school,” Gilman’s attorney, Maggie McLetchie, told the Review-Journal.

Exchanges between Gilman and Williams

Beginning in summer 2020, Gilman and Williams began exchanging messages on Twitter, with the complaint noting the interactions occurred outside of work.

Some exchanges included personal insults where Williams or Gilman — who have opposing views regarding political and social issues — would “state something to elicit a response from the other,” and that “back-and-forth escalated to vitriolic insults on both sides,” according to the complaint.

In July 2020, Gilman tweeted to Williams, “you are a racist and a COVID denier, and worse than that a fake patriot. You wrap yourself in the flag, and act self-righteous. We are coming for you … in November.”

Williams responded by saying, “Aww. Welcome back fan! Time to make a comment then block me … again.”

After her election and before being sworn in as a trustee in January 2021, Williams posted a video on Instagram that allegedly threatened to go after Gilman and “any other teacher who happens to hate (her) guts” and to enforce the school district’s anti-bullying policy after taking office, according to the complaint.

Gilman was placed on “home assignment” in February 2021 and told by the school district that he would be subject to an internal review for his social media posts. The following month, Gilman was advised that the district’s police department was investigating him related to his social media posts.

Gilman “loves being in the classroom,” but was unable to teach classes in person while he was under investigation, which was “humiliating and damaging,” the complaint said. The “home assignment” status also prohibited him from teaching in summer school and being compensated for that.

The school district allowed Gilman to return to in-classroom teaching in August 2021, but an approximately 2-year-long police investigation and internal review “inexplicably appear to remain open and ongoing.”

“Due to the stress and humiliation caused by CCSD’s decision to punish and ostracize him for engaging in political speech, Mr. Gilman has suffered and is suffering emotional distress, anxiety, depression, and sleep issues,” the lawsuit said.

Criticism over Williams’ Twitter posts

Williams has faced criticism in the past for her Twitter posts.

During a June School Board meeting, then-President Irene Cepeda said some trustees were not in compliance with a policy that outlines standards for how they should communicate on social media.

She provided examples from several trustees, including tweets from Williams mocking a teacher who resigned and that said “communists” were trying to take over education.

As a School Board candidate, Williams responded to a March 2020 post on Twitter from U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez early in the COVID-19 pandemic that urged people to stay away from crowded places and to eat meals at home.

Williams responded, “I just went to a crowded Red Robin and I’m 30. It was delicious, and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I’ll do what I want.”

The hashtag #CoronaKatie later trended on Twitter as a result.

Williams also lost her Ms. Nevada 2019 title after the national pageant organizers said her online posts about politics violated their policy. Williams said the move was because of her support of President Donald Trump.

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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