The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado on Thursday sued Woodland Park School District leaders on behalf of a former district employee who they say was forced to leave a school board meeting after making a “brief and harmless” comment and was immediately banned from district property and events for more than a year.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Denver, alleges that resident Logan Ruths’ constitutional rights to freedom of expression under both the state and federal Constitution were violated. It is the latest sign of boiling tensions in a school district that has gained national attention after a conservative group of candidates who won control of the board two years ago adopted controversial social studies standards earlier this year and a wave of teachers quit while others were fired, Colorado Public Radio reported.
According to a statement from the ACLU detailing the lawsuit, Ruths was listening to a speaker June 14 during public comment at the board meeting and interpreted their remarks as hateful rhetoric toward the LGBTQ community. As the speaker ended, he chimed in, saying “Where else do you do comedy at? I’d love to see your show sometime.”
“The board abruptly stopped the meeting, threatened to call the police to have Ruths removed and ultimately intimidated him into leaving the property,” the statement noted.
The next day, Ruths, who was born and raised in Woodland Park, graduated high school from the district and still lives in the town in Teller County, received a letter from the school district attorney, Brad Miller, commanding him to stay away from district property and events for more than a year. Any violation could result in criminal prosecution, according to the statement.
The ACLU is asking the court to immediately remove the banishment order while the lawsuit is pending and asserts that “this banishment order has no legitimate basis and is instead thinly veiled retaliation for Ruths’ open criticisms” of the district.
The conflict between the district and Ruths, 26, adds to “a pattern” of behavior in which the school board is taking different approaches to “intimidate the community,” said Tim Macdonald, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado.
“This is for us a step to say, we’re not going to stand idly by while that happens,” Macdonald said, noting that he has also been concerned about the rise of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policies in school districts across the state.
Macdonald said that government bodies like school boards cannot ban someone from speaking at a public meeting unless they “have very, very significant and strong reasons.”
“Cracking a three-second joke does not come anywhere close to the bar that allows a school district to say for the next year you in this community cannot speak to the school board,” he said. “And we think it’s designed and intended to send a message to the community that if you speak out, if you criticize this school board, we will try to silence you. We will try to bar you from speaking.”
“A very intentionally chilling effort”
A video clip of the June 14 meeting shows Ruths reacting to a comment made by a speaker who raised concerns about a trio of school board candidates backed by “extremists” who, if elected, “will reintroduce gender confusion to young children through (social-emotional learning).”
“We need a real plan to push back against the extremists who are hurting the children,” the speaker said. “I urge the board to appeal to Attorney General Merrick Garland to get the resources we need from the Department of Justice to push back against the rise of political extremism in Woodland Park.”
Following applause from the audience, Ruths, seated in the front row, can be heard piping up, asking the speaker where else he performs comedy.
Tensions accelerate from there as Board President David Rusterholtz bangs his gavel and responds, “Hey, no more interruptions.”
Ruths and Rusterholtz have a verbal exchange, with Ruths appearing confused, saying he was making a comment rather than interrupting. After being accused of disrupting the meeting, Ruths says he is going to stay and listen to the next portion of the meeting focused on the budget. After he refuses to follow board members’ orders for him to go talk to a district security staffer, Rusterholtz threatens to call the police to have him removed.
“Go ahead and call the police,” Ruths said.
Rusterholtz told The Colorado Sun that he repeatedly asked Ruths to leave the meeting as a means to restore order.
“I gave him every opportunity to stop, and I have nothing against him,” Rusterholtz said. “I like the guy. Everything I’ve heard about him, he’s a nice guy and so I have no animosity toward him whatsoever. I just wanted him to stop interrupting the meeting.”
He added that Ruths was the first person he’s ever had to ask to leave a meeting — an action he never wants to take.
“I don’t mind dissent,” he said. “I don’t mind anything like that. As the president of the board, I need to keep order during the meeting, and I couldn’t do that and continue with the meeting.”
Ruths, who worked for the district for almost two years — most recently as the network administrator and records custodian who handled all public records requests — told The Colorado Sun that board members were the ones interrupting the meeting and escalating the conflict.
He said he is an ally of the LGBTQ community and that “it felt like (the speaker) was trying to put fear into people’s minds.”
Ruths remembers feeling frustration and anger as he begrudgingly left the meeting.
“I was terrified that there was going to be something more, and I was in shock that it had just happened,” Ruths said. “I couldn’t believe that me making a single joke would bring the meeting to its knees.”
That shock carried over to the next day, when he learned the district was banning him from district buildings and events for more than a year.
Ruths, who is now launching his own business with software aimed at helping agencies more efficiently process public records requests while following the law, said he feels “targeted” by district leaders, accusing them of attacking individuals for their personal beliefs.
“It’s obviously a very intentionally chilling effort by the district,” Ruths said.
But it’s not the first time the district has silenced Ruths, who said he was fired in March with the district asserting that it was eliminating his position, even after he said he clocked 118 hours of overtime in January alone.
Ruths said he developed the district’s system that handled public records requests, and once he was gone, no one else knew how to use it. He believes the district terminated him because he wasn’t shy about pushing back when instructed to withhold information being sought in public records requests.
“Anything that put the district in a bad light, they would have some reason for me to not release it or they would redact it very heavily,” Ruths said.
Getting fired in the spring was especially painful for Ruths, who said he was hired by the district while receiving chemotherapy for a soft tissue desmoid tumor and grew close to his team, who became like family. He’s now in remission.
Being banned from the district has complicated the relationship Ruths has with his hometown. He wants district leaders to be “held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
When asked if banning Ruths from district grounds and events for more than a year violated his rights to free speech, Rusterholtz said he wasn’t sure he should be banned for that long.
“Would I say his rights are being violated?” he said. “I think that when you enter into a meeting that you don’t bring all of your freedom of speech into a meeting like that.”
He called the incident and lawsuit “terribly unfortunate” and pointed to a broader trend of feverish emotions in school board meetings nationwide.
“I know that the passions are running high, and I try to be patient for that,” Rusterholtz said. “In school board meetings across the country, there are very passionate people, and part of my job is to run the business meeting of the board of directors of the district, and I always hope that I do it very patiently, that I’m kind and respectful to people during that time.”