It's safe to sport signs at SRC meetings again

Lisa Haver, with Alliance for Public Schools, holds up a sign during a SRC budget meeting in April 2014.

It's officially safe to carry signs to School Reform Commission meetings.

Three former Philadelphia teachers have settled a civil-rights lawsuit they filed against the SRC, Commissioner Bill Green, the city, and others, splitting $32,500 in what they say were First Amendment violations.

At a crowded and contentious February SRC meeting, officials confiscated placards from Lisa Haver, Ilene Poses, and Barbara Dowdall. City police also removed Poses from Philadelphia School District headquarters after she refused to surrender the sign she wore around her neck.

All three were opposed to the SRC's approving new charter schools. At the time, then-Chairman Green said signs were banned temporarily because of the large crowd.

After the meeting, Commissioner Farah Jimenez apologized for the temporary no-sign rule.

As part of the settlement, the SRC issued a statement that it "encourages the public to attend SRC meetings and to participate in public comment opportunities, and believes that public involvement in education issues is critical to maintaining support for the School District. The SRC reaffirms the right of the public . . . to wear clothing and/or to carry cardboard signs that display viewpoints on issues of public concern."

Large banners and signs on sticks or poles are still prohibited in the meeting room, officials said.

Haver said the settlement was a victory.

"It means that the SRC cannot trample on people's First Amendment rights, just because it's a crowded meeting and there's a lot of people there," she said Monday. "We just didn't want them to get away with this."

None of the settlement money comes from district coffers. The full $32,500 comes from the city's litigation fund, said Paul Messing, the plaintiffs' lawyer.

"They don't want to take a penny from the public schools," Messing said.

The plaintiffs will donate part of the settlement money to causes that are personally meaningful to them that directly benefit Philadelphia children, Haver said, and part will go to support the work of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, a grassroots advocacy organization of which the three women are members.

"The plaintiffs are pleased that their rights have been fully vindicated and that they can continue to communicate important messages to the School Reform Commission and others," Messing said. "This incident never should have happened."