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Judge deals blow to GOP group

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Hagadone News Network | October 22, 2021 1:00 AM

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COEUR d’ALENE — Less than two weeks before the Nov. 2 general election, a federal judge has denied a motion to block the Coeur d’Alene School District from prohibiting political activity on school property during elections.

Jeremy Ray Morris, representing the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee in its ongoing lawsuit against the school district, filed the preliminary and permanent injunction in August.

If granted, the injunction would have prevented the school district from prohibiting electioneering on school property while the larger case advances.

The lawsuit alleges that the school district violated Idaho law by removing a demonstrator from Hayden Meadows Elementary School who was passing out sample ballots on Nov. 3, 2020.

The demonstrator, identified in the suit as Brigadier General Bob Brooke, was reportedly asked to move from the parking lot to a grassy area nearby, where he resumed electioneering activities.

Morris filed the lawsuit in March on behalf of the KCRCC, as well as Bob Brooke and KCRCC election chair Jeff Tyler, seeking $17,760 in damages.

Parties seeking a preliminary injunction must establish that they are likely to succeed on the merits, that they are likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in their favor and that an injunction is in the public interest.

In a memorandum filed Wednesday, Chief U.S. District Judge David Nye said the plaintiffs failed to meet those standards.

Coeur d’Alene School District spokesman Scott Maben said district officials are happy with Judge Nye’s ruling.

“Given that the plaintiffs have not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their complaint, we are confident moving forward in this litigation,” Maben said Thursday.

Morris declined to comment on Nye’s decision.

Idaho Code 18-2318 states that, on the day of any election, no person may do any electioneering within 100 feet of any building in which an election is being held.

Individuals are further prohibited from obstructing or preventing free access to and from any polling place.

The KCRCC asserts that the 100 feet should begin at the building where voting occurs, while the school district argues it should start at the edge of school property.

However, Judge Nye said the dispute about how that distance should be measured was immaterial to the matter at hand.

The law does not mandate that electioneering must be allowed if it is more than 100 feet from the polling place.

The KCRCC’s contention that the school district violated Idaho law by not allowing electioneering on school property more than 100 feet from the polling place “is a fundamental misinterpretation of the statute,” Nye wrote.

He added that the KCRCC’s position is also contrary to First Amendment law, citing the 2004 case of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1099 v. City of Sidney: “Just because certain types of speech are expressly prohibited within a certain area does not mean that they are therefore permissible outside that area.”

In that case, an Ohio union unsuccessfully sued after its members were prohibited from soliciting signatures for a petition outside several polling places, including four public schools.

Nye said schools within the district can limit expression on their grounds, regardless of whether the expression occurs 100 feet from the polling place, if they have “a reasonable and viewpoint neutral reason” to do so.

The plaintiffs argued that the school district “allowed other political points of view on their campus” at other times, referencing alleged signature gathering and other activities that occurred at different schools.

Nye called the allegations “unsubstantiated hearsay” with no connection to the plaintiffs’ case, Hayden Meadows or Election Day.

No evidence supports the claim that the school district used state electioneering laws as a pretext to engage in viewpoint discrimination, Nye said.

Witnesses testified that the plaintiffs were asked to move out of the parking lot because they were obstructing traffic, stopping cars to hand out materials and taking up parking spaces with lawn chairs and a cooler, according to court documents.

The harm the plaintiffs would suffer in the absence of an injunction is “entirely speculative,” Nye wrote.

It is “undisputed” that the plaintiffs were able to electioneer within 100 feet of school grounds and voters were able to obtain sample ballots from them after they moved out of the parking lot, documents showed.

However, Nye said, the harm that granting an injunction would cause the school district is not speculative.

In occupying the parking lot on Election Day, Nye found that the plaintiffs disrupted the educational process. They took parking spaces meant for parents, teachers and voters and caused traffic to stop, thus making children late for school.

“The interest children have in a safe, peaceful educational environment outweighs the potentially minimal harm to landowners, electioneers and voters of having to promote certain causes and candidates off school property on Election Day,” Nye wrote.