Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter Wednesday to the superintendent of the Downingtown Area School District on behalf of two teens berated by a school official for peacefully engaging in free speech about abortion on a public sidewalk outside of one of the district’s schools.
One of the teens captured Vice Principal of Student Life Zach Ruff on video angrily shouting at them, demanding that they leave, and eventually attempting to rip a sign out of their hands in a manner that legally constitutes assault.
In the letter, ADF attorneys representing Conner and Lauren Haines and their parents ask the school district to send a memorandum to Downingtown STEM Academy employees, students, and parents explaining the constitutionally protected freedom of citizens like Lauren and Conner to speak on the sidewalks around the school. The letter also requests that the district and Ruff together send a letter to the two teens acknowledging the violation of their rights and assuring them that it won’t happen again.
Since the incident on April 21, “many Downingtown Public School students (and parents) have followed Ruff’s example—sending Conner and Lauren hundreds of messages indicating they completely misunderstand the concept of Free Speech. In fact, some of those comments were threatening and vulgar,” the letter explains.
“No one should ever be harassed and berated by a government employee on a public sidewalk simply for peacefully engaging in one of the most common free speech activities,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot. “The severity of this situation, as easily seen in the video, makes what we are requesting of the school district so necessary. This can never happen again, and the school district should ensure that both Conner and Lauren—as well as anyone else who would engage in protected free speech—feel confident that it won’t.”
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Ruff, whom the district has placed on administrative leave while it investigates, is seen in the video approaching the two teens on the sidewalk outside the Chester County school, telling the students to “shut up” and that, with regard to aborted babies, “You can go to hell where they are, too. They’re not children. They’re cells.” He proceeds to berate them with foul language and demand that they cease engaging in free speech and leave.
“Oral communication, literature distribution, and displaying hand-held signs are protected activities and classic forms of speech that lie at the very ‘foundation of free government by free men…,’” the ADF letter explains. “In addition to the constitutional violations, Ruff’s willful, aggressive attempt to intimidate Lauren and Conner and keep them from speaking by attempting to take their sign constitutes assault and battery under Pennsylvania law…. It is imperative that this situation be corrected immediately….”
The letter asks for a response by May 14 and explains that legal action may be necessary if the district doesn’t immediately respect the free speech rights of Lauren and Conner Haines.