A Cary-Grove High School senior said his First Amendment rights were violated when Cary’s mayor came to his school for a question-and-answer session and the student was told not to interrupt, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court.
Matthew Ahmann, a self-described political journalist, has been outspoken against Mayor Mark Kownick in recent years through his politically driven Facebook account.
In his lawsuit filed against the school board of Crystal Lake-based District 155, Ahmann said that on Sept. 26 he did as he was told by the school’s dean, James Kelly, after receiving a “threatening ultimatum” and kept quiet during the mayor’s visit to his advanced placement politics class.
Ahmann, who also is seeking $50,000 in compensatory damages, said in the lawsuit that Kelly approached him after having a conversation with Kownick. Kelly told him not to “say or do anything” during Kownick’s visit “or negative consequences would follow.”
According to the lawsuit, “Mayor Kownick and Dean Kelly, working in concert and prior to the mayor’s speech, conspired to stifle Matt’s continued political journalism by having Dean Kelly threaten and intimidate Matt.”
Ahmann did however record the session on his cellphone and weeks later posted it on his politically charged Facebook page. He said the district in retaliation punished him by placing him on a 1-day in-school suspension. Ahmann said in the lawsuit he wants this expunged from his record because having this “permanent academic record of suspension” hurts his future chances of being accepted into colleges and earning scholarships.
In its response to the lawsuit the school board denies any wrongdoing.
The board claims the suspension was because Ahmann violated the school’s rules on using cellphones during class.
“The board admits that it subsequently became aware that [Ahmann] used his cell phone to surreptitiously record the entirety of his AP Government class … in violation of Board Policies and the Student Handbook and had posted a portion of the recording online,” the board said in its response.
The response also states that there was no plan or direction between Kelly and Kownick to “muzzle” Ahmann and that he was not threatened in any way.
This week, Kownick, in his second term as mayor, adamantly denied that there was any such conversation with Kelly in any regards to stifling Ahmann.
He insisted he “never had a conversation with Dean Kelly prior to our visit … It absolutely did not happen, without a doubt.”
He said he came to the school that day, as he has often done over the years, as part of a question-and-answer session with two classes. He had no prepared speech or topic to present and no clue what the students would be asking about.
Kownick, whose three children are graduates of the school, said he “has a huge affinity” for the school and enjoys meeting with the students, who asked “excellent questions” that day about the economic development of their village and his role as mayor. Kownick said he knew of Ahmann but had never met him until that day in class.
He said Ahmann, who does not live in the village and has no voting rights there, had emailed him in the past. But more disturbingly, he had “taken a picture of my family [from Facebook] and degraded it.”
Though he did not see it for himself, Kownick said “many people told me about it and [said that Ahmann] referred to us as ‘the scum of Cary.’”
“It was unsettling,” Kownick said. “I’m open for anything. I chose to do this, but leave my family out of it.”
Still, Kownick said Ahmann was suspended because he “violated the school policy” by using a cellphone during class and nothing else.
Kelly and the school district’s attorney said they could not comment on the pending litigation. Ahmann’s attorney said he has advised his client not to comment. The case is set for status in U.S. District Court in Rockford on Feb. 22. The next school board meeting is Feb. 20.
Amanda Marrazzo is a freelance reporter.
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