2 Pinellas parents head to court over Florida school culture wars

Disagreement over education politics sparked an online feud that led to a restraining order request.
Two Pinellas County political activists crossed paths over school board issues. Now one is pursuing a restraining order against the other.
Two Pinellas County political activists crossed paths over school board issues. Now one is pursuing a restraining order against the other. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published April 21, 2023|Updated April 21, 2023

Blogger David Happe is unabashed about his conservative politics. Pro-choice activist Elisabeth Weinstein is equally intense about her liberal views.

They’ve moved through Pinellas County circles for years pushing their agendas with vigor, but without crossing paths.

Now they’re at odds in county court, the spillover of the culture wars that have consumed the county, state and nation. Their dispute arose amid their differences over public education and the school district’s ban of Toni Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye.”

Happe, who has a preteen in the school system, is seeking a restraining order against Weinstein, alleging she cyberstalked him over his views and is intent on doxxing white conservatives.

Weinstein has hired two lawyers in her defense, saying she’s been sharing publicly available information and standing up for her rights. She declined to comment for this story, and her lawyer did not return calls.

Though it initially appeared they might settle their differences, neither looks likely to back down as the case moves toward a May hearing. Meanwhile, a temporary stalking injunction against Weinstein remains in place.

Residents watching from the sidelines see the dispute as the predictable outcome of society’s widening partisan rift, which intensified during the pandemic.

Even Happe, who spent months using his own website to instigate anti-mask protests and complain about critical race theory, said he would not mind seeing a dip in the rhetorical temperature.

“There’s now a much more toxic climate than occurred pre-pandemic,” he said.

That climate played out publicly during the 2022 elections, when Happe was out campaigning on behalf of several Republican candidates.

After visiting the home of school board candidate Brian Martin, whom Happe did not support, Martin’s wife posted security video on TikTok, saying she was fearful for the couple’s children.

Happe, for his part, said he had been delivering campaign materials to all homes on a Republican registered voter list.

It’s that environment that swirled as Happe and Weinstein headed toward their dustup.

At a meeting where school board members discussed Morrison’s work, Happe equated the book with fetish “rape porn.” Online he supported banning it from all schools. Weinstein, who created a Facebook group seeking to stop Moms for Liberty in Pinellas, opposed the district’s ban and those who backed it.

In the days leading to the next meeting where the book was expected to be discussed, Happe and others who favored keeping the novel out of classrooms called on supporters to stand up to what they called in social media the “woke school board mob.” Weinstein and those pushing to restore the title posted about fighting against ignorance and bigotry.

Happe contended that Weinstein took her advocacy too far.

He claimed she used her Facebook persona to contact his employer several times in mid-February to make untrue and potentially damaging allegations against him. Weinstein included Happe among several people associated with Moms for Liberty that she aimed to draw attention to for their “nasty behavior.”

As they geared up for the meeting, a court filing indicates Weinstein sent a message to local Moms for Liberty leader Angela Dubach. In it, she said to “Let David, and all of your buddies know, anyone (who) shows up at my house will learn progressives are not pacifists, and we know how the Stand Your Ground laws work.”

The message ended with a winking, smiling emoji face. Happe said he assumed she was referring to the time he had knocked on Martin’s door.

He stated in his court filing that he was not interacting with Weinstein. At the Feb. 28 board meeting, where “The Bluest Eye” supporters outnumbered its opponents, he left without speaking.

In a widely shared Facebook post, Weinstein rejected the notion that she was cyberbullying anyone. Rather, she wrote, she was highlighting the public posts Happe and others have made that she viewed as misinformation.

She noted that Happe filed his motion for an injunction the day before the Feb. 28 meeting, in an effort to stop her from being there.

“They specifically requested that I’m barred from that location,” she wrote. “Their first request was denied. They then showed up at the board meeting anyway, knowing I would be there, because they were so scared of me.”

Weinstein won a continuance in the case, after which she returned to Facebook to call on supporters to keep collecting information about anyone being harassed by the “trolls.”

Happe said he did not want to comment directly about the case. He said the situation has made him think about how people across the political spectrum, including himself, are attempting to get what they want politically.

Lately, he’s diminished his online presence and all but stopped attending government meetings.

“I don’t believe the answers lie in a Pinellas County School Board meeting, pounding my fist,” Happe said, suggesting he will seek other ways to advocate his conservative principles.

He said he does not anticipate the combative climate will change any time soon, though.

Nor does Raegan Miller, a parent and book-banning opponent who lately has attended several Pinellas board meetings.

“It’s sad that we have gotten to a place where a judicial proceeding is required to settle a difference of opinions,” Miller said. “I think this shows how much our children need to be educated to think critically and work collaboratively.”

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