South Whidbey School Board member Damian Greene is threatening to take legal action against a local youth activism organization composed mainly of South Whidbey High School students for a Facebook post he claims is libelous.
The post was made last month, shortly after the school district’s Black Lives Matter banner was stolen and its congratulatory banner for graduates vandalized.
The theft came on the heels of a demonstration in which around 140 community members, led by Greene’s wife, Maureen, protested the presence of the Black Lives Matter banner as well as progressive additions to the curriculum.
The post was made on the United Student Leaders, or USL, Facebook page. It encouraged community members to attend the June 23 school board meeting and ask questions such as “What was Maureen and/or Damian’s role in the stealing and vandalizing of the banners?”
Annie Philp, a South Whidbey High School student and one of USL’s founders, said the post’s intent was never to accuse the Greenes of directly stealing or vandalizing the banners.
“Instead, we wanted community members to acknowledge how Maureen and Damian may have instigated what happened, because both have repeatedly called for the banners to be removed,” she said. “We wanted answers.”
Greene, however, said the post’s phrasing indicated otherwise.
“Had the defamatory post stated ‘Did’ Greene have a role, rather than ‘What WAS’ Greene’s role, the post would not have been libel,” he wrote in a statement to the South Whidbey Record.
In Washington state, a plaintiff in a defamation case must prove the defendant made a false statement of fact about the plaintiff and demonstrate reckless disregard for the truth which caused actual harm to the plaintiff.
When the plaintiff is a public figure, he or she must also prove actual malice, meaning the defendant knew the statement was false and was not simply negligent.
Greene disclosed he was meeting with an attorney regarding the post during the June 23 school board meeting.
In his statement to the Record, he confirmed he is still consulting with the attorney but has not taken any legal action yet.
Philp confirmed that as of press time USL has not been contacted by Greene’s attorney.
“Certainly, nobody desires to enter into litigation. Hopefully it is not needed to fully learn the lesson here,” Greene wrote.
“This issue could have been resolved and still can, by USL simply removing the post,” Greene continued in his statement, later adding, “I am also giving USL ample opportunity to correct their error.”
As of press time, the Facebook post had not been removed.
“It’s still up there, and people still see that about us,” Maureen Greene said.
Philp said she did not find the threat of litigation credible because USL had no intent to cause harm to the Greenes or spread false information.
Rather, Philp said, since students had been the ones to ask for the Black Lives Matter banner and other curriculum changes opponents protested on June 11, the threat felt like an attempt to subvert student input.
“Continuing to not engage with students and to disregard what we had to say on the matter is just unacceptable at this point, considering it is our education,” Philp said.
“And since we have been so forthright in asking for what we want in our education, it just is inappropriate to disregard that and try to find a way around our voices,” she said.
USL member Eva Wirth added that it is frustrating to be facing opposition from a school board member, whom she feels should be students’ advocates and supporters.
“It’s just annoying, because if we keep talking about him and calling him out, then he will follow through on it,” Wirth said, referring to Greene’s pending legal action.
“But if we shut up, then that’s just what he wants us to do,” she said.
Greene said though he does welcome input from students, it is “the property taxpayer and voters who have the final decision as to what is taught in school.”
No curriculum should supplant parents’ rights to teach their children their own values and beliefs, including political beliefs, he said.
To Greene, the Black Lives Matter banner violates the standard of political neutrality to which public schools should be held because the Black Lives Matter Global Network launched a political action committee in October of last year.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, however, made a statement last summer that using Black Lives Matter terminology does not constitute inherently political activity.
Following the theft and vandalization, community members donated to cover replacement costs. Both the Black Lives Matter and congratulatory banners were replaced, and an LGBTQ+ pride banner was added to the fence, as well.
South Whidbey School Board Chairman Brook Willeford said the pride banner will be followed in August by a banner addressing civil discourse in South Whidbey schools.
The school board plans to add new banners each month to represent a variety of other communities.
Willeford also acknowledged the 160 students who staged a counter-protest on June 11 to speak up for their own wishes for their education.
“When students feel so much passion for learning, I think that it’s important to listen to them and support their efforts rather than feeling threatened by them,” he said.
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.