The entrance to Springfield Public Schools Kraft Administrative Center. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Sixteen state attorneys general, led by Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, are siding with two Springfield Public Schools employees as they appeal a federal judge’s decision to toss out their lawsuit against the school district. The employees said SPS violated their First Amendment rights during a 2020 diversity training session.

In January, U.S. District Court Judge M. Douglas Harpool ruled the two employees brought a frivolous lawsuit before the court. Harpool later awarded Springfield Public Schools nearly $313,000 in legal fees. 

According to the Southeastern Legal Foundation, which is representing the employees, the brief filed by 16 attorneys general is one of 11 in total that have been filed in support of the appeal. All 16 states have Republican attorneys general.

Bailey and the AGs that signed onto the brief are challenging Harpool’s ruling in favor of summary judgment for Missouri’s largest school district and several of its administrators. “Amicus curiae” means “friend of the court” in Latin, and such legal briefs are often filed in appellate courts by parties that are not directly tied to the case but believe the ruling will impact them favorably or unfavorably in later legal battles.

The lawsuit, filed in August of 2021, alleged the employees were forced to participate in mandatory equity training that compelled them to align with the district’s views on politicized issues like white privilege, anti-racism and equity. 

In January, Harpool sided with the school district. In February, attorneys for Henderson and Lumley filed a notice of appeal in U.S. District Court. Harpool then in March sided again with the district in ordering that SPS be reimbursed nearly $313,000 in attorney fees. The attorneys for Henderson and Lumley are appealing that decision as well. 

Bailey-led brief invokes MLK 

In the brief, the AGs arguments invoke Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.” It goes on to claim Springfield Public Schools’ 2020 diversity training, which included discussions of white privilege, rejects King’s desire to live in a nation where children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

King’s daughter, Bernice King, has in recent years rebuked efforts to use the hope he called for in that passage as a license to ignore America’s history of racism, telling MSNBC, “Daddy would never say, ‘Excuse the history and let’s start here.” Bernice King said her father was focused on ending poverty, racism and militarism up until his assassination.

The AGs’ brief goes on to argue that the plaintiffs presented a compelling claim that their First Amendment rights were violated by forcing them to take part in the training and further pressuring them to align their views with training.

“SPS made clear that the school district would brand employees as racists if they expressed disfavored views or failed to express favored views,” the brief states. 

Harpool found otherwise when he made his ruling in January. 

“Here, Defendant SPS’ professional training endeavored to address, increase, and enhance employees’ understanding and sensitivity to race issues likely to be confronted by minority students served by Defendant SPS,” Harpool wrote. “The training, however, did not require by means of compulsion or coercion Plaintiffs or anyone else to express a specific message after encountering examples of discrimination or xenophobia. This Court has found nothing in the professional training, or policy suggested by the training, requiring an employee to violate the Constitution or federal law.” 

Along with the state filing, 20 organizations have submitted 10 amicus briefs to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, where the Southeastern Legal Foundation is seeking a reversal of the decision in Henderson v. Springfield Public Schools. Most of the organizations are conservative and libertarian policy centers, many of whom argue that the case was decided incorrectly. However, the collection also includes the ACLU of Missouri, which joined with five other organizations in calling for the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse Harpool’s decision to award attorney fees to the school district. 

Springfield Public Schools withholding comment, planning formal response

In a press release Monday, the Southeastern Legal Foundation said the collection of briefs showed “overwhelming support for the First Amendment and two brave educators” the foundation represents, Brooke Henderson and Jennifer Lumley. 

“In nearly 50 years of bringing lawsuits under §1983 civil rights law, SLF has never faced attorney fees sanctions for challenging unconstitutional government action at any level,” Braden Boucek, the foundation’s litigation director, said in a news release. “This case rises above politics, as evidenced by the varied backgrounds of the 36 amici supporting our clients. They understand that the outcome of this case will affect every American’s civil rights.”

Stephen Hall, Springfield Public Schools spokesman, said the district’s formal response is forthcoming. SPS has until mid-June to file its response to the plaintiffs in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Only after the response is filed will a window of time open up for entities to file amicus briefs in support of the defendants, should any choose to. 

According to court documents, the plaintiffs and defense were at odds about what would have happened if Henderson and Lumley didn’t attend the training. In his January order granting summary judgment to SPS, Harpool wrote that the plaintiffs claimed they would lose pay if absent from the training. The defense said pay associated with the training was supplemental, and that no employee who failed to attend the training was fired for not participating.

While there were disagreements during the sessions, Harpool wrote, the plaintiffs did not show they were compelled to align their views with the session leaders. 

“Rather, facts not in dispute generally show the exact opposite: Plaintiffs voiced their personal objections to anti-racism and equity,” Harpool wrote. “Plaintiff’s expression of their views makes clear they neither affirm, endorse, promote, nor adopt equity and anti-racism. Plaintiffs themselves acknowledge this when they argue that Plaintiff Lumley’s own coworkers berated her during training for opposing equity and anti-racism. Simple logic dictates that Plaintiff Lumley’s coworkers cannot both berate her for opposing equity and antiracism and simultaneously associate her with those concepts.”

The Southeastern Legal Foundation is a Georgia-based nonprofit conservative legal fund that had about $7 million in total assets as of its 2020 Form 990 filing. Most of the parties that have filed amicus briefs in support of the plaintiffs are conservative or libertarian centers, such as the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Goldwater Institute and others. But not all of them are. 

The ACLU of Missouri joined five other organizations in saying that the plaintiffs’ claims were not frivolous and that awarding the school district its legal fees would create a chilling effect on others who would consider challenging a district decision. 

“While the organizations filing this amicus brief may disagree on the meaning of the constitution and even on the merits of the suit against Springfield Public Schools, we agree that access to the courts is necessary to challenge the government when it restricts the rights of the people it was intended to serve,” Gillian Ruddy Wilcox, ACLU of Missouri’s deputy director for litigation, said in a news release. “The financial penalty imposed by the decision on appeal will close the courthouse door to anyone pushing to expand individual liberty.”

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson