California already has undermined the rights of parents from out of state when it comes to experimental transgender “health care,” but the Legislature also is considering a bill that would criminalize causing “substantial disorder” at school board meetings—an attempt to “chill parents from speaking out,” critics warn.
SB 596, which the California State Senate passed in May, 30-8, would expand state law that bars adults from subjecting “a school employee to harassment.”
The bill, now making its way to the floor of the lower chamber, the California State Assembly, would expand the definition of “school employee” to cover any employee or official of a school district, charter school, and county or state education board or office.
The bill also would outlaw, as a misdemeanor, actions that cause “substantial disorder” at a school board meeting.
The law proposed in the Golden State doesn’t define “substantial disorder,” and its definition of “harassment” leaves broad room for interpretation. Under the proposal, Californians who violate the provision face a fine of $500 to $1,000, a year in county jail, or both. A second offense would mean mandatory jail time and could involve another fine; a third offense would mean more jail time and perhaps a third fine.
“It’s clear they’re trying to chill parents from speaking out,” Sarah Parshall Perry, a senior legal fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, told The Daily Signal on Wednesday. (The Daily Signal is The Heritage Foundation’s news outlet.)
“I find it curious that there’s no definition of ‘substantial’ or ‘disruption’ within the proposed text,” Perry said. “Considering that these are essential terms for the bill, it’s likely that if passed, the law would fall under a vagueness challenge.”
Parents “have a right to express themselves under the protections of the First Amendment,” she noted. “Ordinary limitations on certain speech—making a true threat of violence, for example—already apply within the context of the First Amendment, making the criminal penalty here unnecessary, legally suspect, and ideologically driven.”
“California Democrats want to increase the presence of minors’ activism while working to chill the free speech of rightfully concerned parents and taxpayers,” Kelly Schenkoske, a California mother who homeschools her two children in conjunction with a public charter school program, told The Daily Signal.
“Instead of focusing on solutions for a state riddled with low academic achievement, a drug crisis, homelessness, rising taxes, human trafficking, water storage issues, and fire prevention, this Democrat-controlled Legislature continues to propose their aggressive, anti-family, legislative pet projects,” Schenkoske added. “Their work over the years to erode parental involvement and rights has been noticed by parents who will stand courageously to speak for the protection of their children and for a better education.”
Jim Manley, state legal policy deputy director at the Pacific Legal Institute, told The Daily Signal that the state government has the prerogative to make laws regarding school board meetings, but the vagueness of the text might encourage school employees and prosecutors to chill parents’ rights to speak freely.
“The idea that the government is trying to regulate conduct at school board meetings is pretty normal,” Manley said. “What sends up potential red flags is some of the language in this bill.”
SB 596 defines “harassment” as “a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that seriously alarms, torments, or terrorizes the person, and that serves no legitimate person.” The bill defines “course of conduct” as “a pattern of conduct composed of two or more acts occurring over a period of time, however short, evidencing a continuity of purpose.”
A parent or other critic “saying two things that the school official finds harassing could be enough to qualify there,” Manley said. “An email that simply torments would count as harassment under this standard.”
The lawyer noted that “to torment” merely means “to cause mental suffering.”
“If you send two emails that cause a school board official to mentally suffer, technically you fall under this definition,” Manley said.
The bill “could be interpreted in a way that chills people’s ability to communicate with elected officials,” he said.
Manley also noted that the bill includes an exemption for “any otherwise lawful employee concerted activity, including, but not limited to, picketing and the distribution of handbills.”
“Parents showing up to hand out literature would not be exempt” under the proposed law, the lawyer said. “Given how broadly this expands the coverage of the crime, I’d like to see the exemption be similarly broad. As written now, it only applies to employees who are picketing.”
Matt McReynolds, deputy chief counsel at the Pacific Justice Institute, echoed these concerns.
“I would certainly agree that SB 596 targets conservative parents who have been energized and re-engaging at the school board level,” McReynolds told The Daily Signal.
“It’s not just speaking at school board meetings; this would criminalize sending emails that seriously annoy or alarm school employees,” he said. “Note, too, the double standards, beginning with the exception in the legislation for labor union activity such as picketing.”
McReynolds also said the “larger context” of the bill is “revealing.”
“In nearly all other areas, our state leaders are stressing decriminalization and have released thousands of dangerous offenders back into our communities,” he said. “The rhetoric about mass incarceration and overcriminalization goes out the window when they’re going after their political enemies. And in the school setting itself, our legislators are moving to reduce the ability of teachers and administrators to punish kids for defiance, disruption, and disorder. The hypocrisy is unmistakable.”
McReynolds also mentioned AB 1078, which passed the California State Assembly in May. That bill, which aims to boost instructional materials regarding diversity by circumventing parents, threatens “to reduce parents’ influence at the school board level,” McReynolds argued,
State Sen. Anthony J. Portantino, the Democrat who sponsored SB 596, didn’t respond to The Daily Signal’s request for comment on the bill.
The bill comes amid new California laws prioritizing children’s stated gender identity over parental rights.
Last year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed into law SB 107, a bill to turn California into a “sanctuary state” for “gender-affirming care.” The measure, which took effect in January, gives California courts the ability to award custody of a child if someone removes that child from his or her parents in another state to obtain such “care” over the parents’ disagreement.
In June, a California state senator told parents to flee the state as the Senate debated a bill that would subject parents who refuse to “affirm” their children’s “gender transitions” to child abuse charges.
“In the past when we’ve had these discussions and I’ve seen parental rights atrophied, I’ve encouraged people to keep fighting,” state Sen. Scott Wilk, a Republican, said. “I’ve changed my mind on that.”
“If you love your children, you need to flee California. You need to flee,” Wilk urged.
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