Court invalidates censorship clause in MNPS former director Shawn Joseph's termination contract

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Posted at 4:16 PM, Jun 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-20 17:16:35-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The Tennessee Court of Appeals released a decision Monday afternoon that struck down a censorship clause for board members in the termination contract of former Metro Nashville Public Schools Director of Schools Shawn Joseph.

MNPS board members voted Joseph out in 2019, with three board members voting against his termination contract because of a clause that would keep them mum.

"The board will not make any disparaging or defamatory comments regarding Dr. Joseph and his performance as Director of Schools. This provision shall be effective for the Board collectively and binding upon each Board member individually," the original board agreement read.

In reaction, board members Amy Frogge, Fran Bush and Jill Speering sued Joseph and the Metro government because of the censorship provision. Throughout the legal process, Metro attorneys argued that the contract didn't involve First Amendment violations, including prior restraint. Bush is still on the MNPS board.

"After a hearing, the trial court entered an order denying the defendants’ motions to dismiss and granting the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment. The trial court found that the nondisparagement clause was unenforceable and unconstitutional on several grounds," justices for the appeals wrote in the majority opinion.

Previously, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle invalidated the clause as unenforceable and ordered Metro and Joseph to pay the Plaintiffs' "reasonable costs and attorney’s fees," which were pledged to charity. Thereafter, both Metro and Joseph appealed.

"This is a landmark victory on behalf of both elected officials' free speech rights and citizens' right to hear from their elected representatives," said attorney Daniel A. Horwitz, who represented all three Plaintiffs along with co-counsel Lindsay Smith. "Metro and Joseph should be ashamed of their efforts to gag elected officials and prevent them from speaking honestly with their constituents about issues of tremendous public importance, and their illegal attempt to do so should serve as a costly warning to other government officials to think twice before violating the First Amendment."