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Lawsuit over blocked emails to settle



Two years ago, conservative activist David Caton sued the Hillsborough school district, claiming that officials violated the First Amendment when they blocked more than 100 e-mails asking School Board members to reconsider a decision to stop coordinating religious holidays with days off school.

This summer, a judge ruled in favor of the school district. Caton and the Florida Family Association appealed.

The case now appears ready to settle. On Tuesday, Board members will be asked to waive their right to an $8,400 award that covers their court costs, but not attorney fees, from defending the suit. In return, Caton would dismiss an appeal. The judge has found that the district did not violate the law.

The lawsuit stemmed from the controversy over the Board's decision to remove religious holidays from the school calendar. Caton's group, the Florida Family Association, flooded Board members with emails, most prewritten form letters. School officials received 60 of the e-mails, sent from the same computer server, before okaying a block. They said they feared the mailing would gum up the computer system.

Soon after, the Board reversed its vote and restored the religious holidays to the school calendar. Last school year, they changed course again and approved a strictly secular calendar, which is now in place. District officials estimate they would spend more than $20,000 defending the appeal, far more than the award they would give up by settling.

Hillsborough School Board attorney Tom Gonzalez called the decision a "purely economic settlement." No decision is final until the Board votes on Tuesday.

The Florida Family Association released the following statement: "We believe that anyone who looks at the Magistrate Judge's report, which is the basis of the ruling that we appealed, would know that it does not accurately reflect the facts in the court record. However, we made the decision to settle our complaint based upon the increased cost of continued litigation and the uncertainty of the outcome at the circuit court of appeals."

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 9:22am]


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