Cary-Grove senior sues school board, alleging free speech stifled

A Cary-Grove High School senior is accusing school officials of stifling his First Amendment right to free speech in a federal civil rights lawsuit.

In the complaint filed this week in U.S. District Court, Matthew Ahmann said administrators gave him an in-school suspension for recording a speech by Cary Village President Mark Kownick during a school visit and posting the video and audio recording on a political website.

"This speech, by a government official about government and politics, was of great public interest, as it touched upon issues of political policy and governance, both generally and specifically to Cary, Illinois," according to the complaint.

Ahmann is suing the Crystal Lake High School District 155 school board for relief and seeking a jury trial and $50,000 in compensatory damages for suspending him.

"The greatest harm is, for applying to various colleges and universities, you have to disclose whether or not you have been subject to any disciplinary actions in school," said attorney Nemura Pencyla, who is representing Ahmann.

Pencyla has filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to get a judge to hear the matter urgently.

Babak Bakhtiari, an Arlington Heights attorney representing District 155, said officials cannot comment on pending litigation and are in the process of reviewing the lawsuit.

The complaint says district administrators tried to "muzzle" Ahmann upon Kownick's request, issuing "a threatening ultimatum not to speak" during the mayor's Sept. 26 visit to Cary-Grove and warning him of "negative consequences." Cary-Grove dean James Kelly "confronted, intimidated and coerced" Ahmann before Kownick's speech, pulling him aside and confronting him about his "previous political activity" outside school, the complaint says. That includes Ahmann's moderating an online forum on politics and community issues, often involving the mayor.

Kownick said he could not comment about pending litigation.

Pencyla said district officials justified Ahmann's suspension by saying he violated a school board policy forbidding cellphone use in the classroom without permission.

"The only reason he is being punished is the exercise of his fundamental First Amendment rights," Pencyla said. "Fundamentally, students and teachers don't surrender their First Amendment rights completely when they enter the school. Matt's actions in this case were purely an act of free speech."

A Cary-Grove High School student's recording of Cary Mayor Mark Kownick's speech during a classroom visit has sparked controversy and a federal lawsuit.
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