The Downingtown Area School District has agreed to clarify its administrative policies to ensure that public sidewalks surrounding its schools are open to free speech. As part of a settlement to avoid being sued in court, the Philadelphia-area school district will take immediate steps to prevent incidents like the one that occurred in April when a 40-year-old administrator physically intimidated and shouted expletives at two teens, who were peacefully expressing their pro-life views on a public sidewalk near the school.
One of the teens captured Vice Principal of Student Life Zach Ruff on video, in which he angrily demanded that they “shut up,” eventually attempting to rip a sign out of their hands, which could constitute assault and battery in Pennsylvania.
“No government employee—especially someone with authority over students—should harass or threaten anyone for exercising their First Amendment protected freedoms in public,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot. “Conner and Lauren Haines were peacefully expressing their pro-life views, holding signs, and talking to those passing by. The bullying and verbal abuse that Zach Ruff inflicted on Conner and Lauren, as documented in the video, made a policy clarification critically necessary, not only for the Haineses, but also for everyone in the Downingtown community. We commend the district for doing the right thing to prevent this from ever happening again.”
In a May 3 letter, ADF attorneys representing the Haines siblings and their parents asked the school district to send a memorandum to Downingtown STEM Academy employees explaining the constitutionally protected freedom of citizens like Lauren and Conner to speak on the sidewalks around the school. The letter also requested that the district send a letter to the two teens acknowledging the violation of their rights and assuring them that it won’t happen again. The school district agreed to those requests.
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“I write on behalf of the Downingtown Area School District to acknowledge the illegality of Dr. Zach Ruff’s behavior on April 21 when you were speaking on the public sidewalk outside the Downingtown STEM Academy,” wrote Superintendent of Schools Emilie Lonardi in a July 7 letter to Conner and Lauren Haines. “You had every right under our Constitution’s First Amendment to speak and display signs like you did, and that right was violated by Dr. Ruff. Rest assured that Dr. Ruff’s actions do not represent the policy of the School District. Instead, we will be providing information to our employees on the First Amendment rights of individuals.”
After the incident on April 21, many Downingtown Public School students and parents followed Ruff’s example—sending Conner and Lauren hundreds of messages that demonstrated they don’t understand freedom of speech. Some of the comments were threatening and vulgar.
Ruff, whom the district suspended without pay while it investigated the incident, and who has subsequently resigned, is seen in the video approaching the two teens on the sidewalk outside the Chester County School, telling them with regard to aborted babies, “You can go to hell where they are, too. They’re not children. They’re cells.” He then proceeded to curse them and attempted to shout them down and physically block them from speaking to passers-by.