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Teacher argues school board violated her freedom of speech when her presentation on library books was cut off

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A panel of three judges heard arguments from lawyers representing a retired teacher and the Waterloo Regional District School Board (WRDSB) on Monday, a year and a half after the teacher’s presentation was halted during a trustee meeting.

Carolyn Burjoski, who was a teacher with the school board for more than 20 years, argues the school board violated her right to freedom of expression in 2022, when she was cut off and prevented from completing a presentation at a board meeting.

Burjoski is asking the court to review the board’s decision to stop her presentation. She also wants the opportunity to continue her presentation to WRDSB trustees.

BACKGROUND

At a school board meeting on Jan. 17, 2022, Burjoski raised concerns about books available in elementary school libraries that she felt discussed sexuality in a way that was not age appropriate. She cited two books, one which discussed asexuality and another about a transgender teenager.

Burjoski told trustees at the meeting that "some of the books make it seem simple, even cool, to take puberty blockers and opposite sex hormones."

Board Chair Scott Piatkowski then stopped her mid-presentation, citing concerns that her comments violated the Ontario Human Rights Code.

The meeting where Burjoski attempted to delegate was discussing a process for reviewing library books.

She was removed from the Zoom meeting and a video recording of it was taken off of social media.

Burjoski launched a $1.75 million lawsuit last May against the WRDSB and Piatkowski for defamation, libel and slander. Monday’s hearing was about a separate issue, in which Burjoski is asking the court to overturn the board’s decision to remove her from the meeting.

ARGUMENTS

On Monday morning, Burjoski’s lawyers argued she did not violate the Human Rights Code or veer off topic during her presentation. They argue her right to freedom of expression was violated because she was not permitted to finish her presentation.

“Ms. Burjoski’s presentation was stopped on the grounds that it was a breach of the Human Rights Code. On our submission, there’s just no foundation whatsoever to find that the reasonable and civil and polite and considerate, professional words of Ms. Burjoski could possibly have breached the Human Rights Code,” lawyer Rob Kittredge said.

Burjoski’s team of two lawyers argued that the entirety of her oral and slideshow presentation focused on the topic of books being offered in school libraries. They said that she was polite and respectful during her presentation, and that these meetings should offer an open platform for people to voice related concerns in a respectful way.

“The forum where Ms. Burjoski was silenced is a place where issues are expected to be discussed, where opposing views are meant to be exchanged and tolerated,” lawyer Jorge Pineda said.

“This was an open meeting in a democratic forum where, I submit, uninhibited discussion so long as it remains respectful and orderly, is not only welcome but it’s necessary to enable the board to fulfill its mandate, which includes formulating policy based on public input.”

According to court documents, Burjoski is asking for a judicial review of the decision to prematurely end her presentation, a declaration that the presentation did not breach the Human Rights Code and a declaration that the board unreasonably violated her rights to freedom of expression.

She would like to have the opportunity to finish her presentation.

During Monday’s hearing, Kevin McGivney, the lawyer representing the school board, argued the application for a judicial review should be dismissed.

He said school board meeting rules state that delegations are expected to stick to discussion topics. Because they were discussing library book review processes, he said it wasn’t within topic for her to point out specific books that highlight gender identity and expression.

He argued her rights to freedom of expression were not violated.

“Anybody discussing something at a public meeting, I would submit, is in an area where their charter right is engaged,” McGivney said.

“But when your discussion on the topic moves off the topic, yes your freedom of expression is still engaged, but the charter doesn’t allow you a licence to go and begin speaking about things that are not one: the topic of the meeting, or two: a potential violation of somebody else’s rights or the Human Rights Code.”

McGivney said the board chair was concerned that she was getting close to violating the Human Rights Code with her comments on the books.

“Gender identity is real. Gender expression is real. It is not an emotional and social concern,” he said.

“The chair is not in a position to determine that Ms. Burjoski violated the Human Rights Code, but he’s absolutely in a position to protect his obligation to create a positive school environment for a transgender child who might be listening.”

THE DECISION

The panel of judges reserved their decision, which will be sent to both parties at a later date.

Burjoski is not asking for compensation. The school board is asking for $10,000 if the decision comes out in its favour.

In an emailed statement following the adjournment of Monday’s hearing, Burjoski said she feels her lawyers presented strong arguments on her behalf.

“I am hopeful for a positive outcome that protects our freedom to express diverse opinions at school board meetings without intimidation,” she said.

Both McGivney and a spokesperson for the WRDSB said they are unable to comment as the matter is still before the courts.

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