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Grants Pass educators take free speech suit to 9th Circuit

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Katie Medart, l, and Rachel Sager in a still from their 2021 video "I Resolve Movement: Response to Gender Identity Policies."

A federal appeals court heard oral arguments on Monday to reinstate a lawsuit by two educators against Grants Pass School District 7. 

The school district had fired Rachel Sager and Katie Medart in 2021 after they launched a social media campaign, called “I Resolve,” criticizing district policies like bathroom access and pronoun use for transgender students.

The educators sued the district, claiming the firing violated their First Amendment right to free speech as well as their right to Equal Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Last year, a district court ruled Sager and Medart's constitutional rights were not violated in their dismissal. That judge agreed with the school district that their firing was due to their activism breaking district policies including causing a disruption.

Mathew Hoffman, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom representing the two educators, said in his oral argument for the appeal that this case is about freedom of speech.

“The broad rule adopted by the district court and defendants will stop teachers from speaking out about nearly any important issue no matter what side they're on,” said Hoffman.

Beth Plass, an attorney representing the school district, said in Monday’s session that the district had received over 100 complaints from those in the community due to Sager and Medart’s campaign. She also argued that their campaign would cause a disruption for transgender students in their classroom.

“It's pretty reasonable to believe that those vulnerable children sitting in that classroom might have trouble connecting and forming a close personal relationship with that teacher,” said Plass.

The two educators were eventually rehired after a new school board majority reinstated them.

A decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on whether or not to go forward with the suit is expected in the following months.

Justin Higginbottom is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. He's worked in print and radio journalism in Utah as well as abroad with stints in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. He spent a year reporting on the Myanmar civil war and has contributed to NPR, CNBC and Deutsche Welle (Germany’s public media organization).