Jennifer Gilmore, who lost her race for Olathe school board, is suing after she was removed from a board meeting where she accused her former opponent of “buying” her seat.
This week, Gilmore — who ran against mask mandates and critical race theory as part of a slate of conservative candidates this past fall — filed the federal lawsuit against Olathe school board president Joe Beveridge, as well as Brent Kiger, the district’s director of safety services, and Jim McMullen, assistant superintendent of operations.
The complaint accuses them of violating Gilmore’s right to free speech as well as the Kansas Open Meetings Act, and claims the district’s policy regulating public comments is unconstitutional.
“Covid 19 has morphed into Covid 1984. The Olathe School District in Johnson County Kansas might use Orwell’s 1984 as student literature or social commentary – but not as an instruction manual for how school board meetings are conducted,” the complaint states.
Gilmore lost her election bid in a tight race. On election night, she was ahead of opponent Julie Steele, who is a registered Democrat, by only 32 votes, but as more mail-in ballots were counted, Steele took the lead and ultimately won by 65 votes. After the race was called, Gilmore questioned the integrity of the election in social media posts but did not request a recount.
On Jan. 13, Steele, along with two conservative newcomers, Brian Connell and Robert Kuhn, were sworn in. During that meeting, Gilmore got up to speak during the public comment portion, dressed in a pink T-shirt that read: “Tested Positive for Critical Thinking With My Old School Olathe Public Education.”
“I didn’t buy my board seat, but I’m still here because I care about this district,” Gilmore told the board. Mid-sentence, Beveridge, who as board president is tasked with maintaining order during meetings, interjected, “You know what,” but let her continue.
Gilmore went on, “Don’t interrupt me, please. We were told prior to enrollment that masks would be optional. We’re doing the same thing year after year. I agree that liars lie, but the only liar that lied in this election was Jim Randall.”
Randall, a former Olathe City Council member, is Steele’s father. He is also Beveridge’s father-in-law.
Beveridge quickly interrupted Gilmore and said, “You’re done, you’re done,” and then called for McMullen to remove her.
Beveridge continued to tell Gilmore that she was done talking, and said that she “mentioned a person.” The school board’s public comment policy states that the board will not hear “personal attacks, or rude or defamatory remarks of any kind about any employee or student of the School District or any person connected with the School District.”
“Your father-in-law of your sister that’s on the board that spent $37,000 for her board seat?” Gilmore replied to Beveridge. Steele raised nearly double the amount that Gilmore did leading up to the November election, reporting about $60,000 in contributions, more than half coming from loans Steele made to her own campaign.
Beveridge then called for a five-minute break.
Gilmore’s attorney Linus Baker alleged that Gilmore was escorted by Kiger into the hallway, and then later required to leave the building. The Stilwell lawyer last year represented the families of 16 children in the Blue Valley and Olathe districts, arguing that their students should be allowed to attend school during the pandemic without wearing masks.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Baker sued the Blue Valley district, the Kansas Department of Children and Families, as well as a charter school, over school immunization requirements on behalf of his son, who was not vaccinated.
An Olathe school spokeswoman said that as of Monday afternoon, “we have not received the lawsuit at this point. Once we formally receive it and review, we may have more information to share at that time.”
Gilmore, Beveridge, Steele and Randall did not immediately return The Star’s request for comment on Monday.
Baker, in an interview with The Star, accused Beveridge of stopping Gilmore’s comments out of his own personal interest.
“He didn’t like what Jennifer said about Mr. Randall,” Baker said. “And that’s not his place.”
The school board’s policy states that Beveridge, as board president, is responsible for maintaining proper order and “may interrupt or terminate any individual’s statement if it is disruptive, not germane to the business activities of the board, or in violation of Kansas Statutes regarding meetings or activities of the board.”
It also states that the board president may deny an individual speaking privileges if that person has shown previous conduct that indicates “the orderly conduct of a meeting may be threatened by that person’s appearance.”
“The policy is unconstitutional,” Baker said. “This board can censor or do anything they want if they think it’s rude. Well, that’s not free speech, and that makes all of it arbitrary.”
Many school boards, city councils and other governmental bodies follow similar policies, for example, prohibiting comments targeted at specific elected officials or individuals.
Baker also defended Gilmore’s comments, arguing that accusing someone of “buying an election” was simply a commonly-used phrase.
“She didn’t say that’s illegal. That’s a phrase out there. Just like saying ‘you threw a bucket of money out there.’ There’s nothing remarkable about that at all,” he said.
By filing the lawsuit, Gilmore is asking that the district and its officials be prohibited from enforcing the school board’s policy that lays out the public speech regulations.