A federal judge ruled in favor of Central Bucks School District Board member Jim Pepper, finding he had a First Amendment right to talk about a professional misconduct complaint that he filed against an educator without fear of prosecution by the Bucks County District Attorney.
In the case, John Doe v. DA Jennifer Schorn, Judge Karen Spencer Marston ruled a state law that prohibits people from disclosing that they filed a professional misconduct complaint with the state Department of Education is unconstitutional in Pepper’s case.
Pepper, a lawyer, had filed a complaint against a Central Bucks employee whom the Department of Education dismissed about a month later without an investigation. He wanted to talk about how the state DOE dismissed the case without finding out the facts and to criticize the DOE for its response.
However, he could have been charged with a misdemeanor under the law, and the Bucks County District Attorney, then Matt Weintraub, refused to “disavow” prosecution, according to the ruling.
Attorney Aaron Martin, who represents Pepper, said, “The effect of the injunction is to bar the Bucks County district attorney from prosecuting my client for disclosing his complaint to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. It also bars prosecution for my client’s disclosure of the Department’s response. The department stated it would not act on his complaint.
“The court declared the law unconstitutional as applied to my client,” said Martin. “It did not declare the law unconstitutional in all respects, nor did it declare the law unconstitutional as applied to other people.”
Despite the judge’s affirmation of his First Amendment rights, Pepper declined to discuss the case or the ruling.
Pepper faced “a credible threat of prosecution,” the judge held in her Jan. 10 opinion. However, her injunction protects Pepper from prosecution should he decide to discuss his complaint.
Schorn, who succeeded Weintraub later and successfully ran for a seat on the Superior Court bench, declined to comment.
Martin added, “The injunction is not binding against other prosecutors. However, the court’s well-reasoned opinion will likely cause other prosecutors not to file charges against other citizens for disclosing similar information.”
Central Bucks, the third-largest school district in the state, has been riven by culture wars in recent years. It has been the subject of an ACLU complaint and a federal Department of Education investigation. Although a prestigious law firm investigated and found the district had not discriminated against LGPTQ students, that issue and a policy to require age-appropriate books in the school libraries drove controversy and propelled a new Democratic majority to take over in the 2023 elections.
Parent Jamie Walker noted the teacher’s union, along with Philadelphia and state Democrats, flooded the race with money to propel the win. Rep. Malcom Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia), who is now running for state auditor general, made commercials for the Democratic slate.