Florida’s St. Johns County School Board has filed and served a strategic lawsuit against Jeff Gray’s First Amendment activities targeting the PINAC reporter for his investigatory work on school bus safety in the 35,000 student district.
“The Superintendent is the one who’s allowing this to happen, and it’s my concern that they’re just checking the boxes without performing pre-trip inspections on school busses that are required by Federal and State law to keep our children safe,” said Gray.
It’s extremely likely that Gray will claim an affirmative defense under Florida’s Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) Prohibited’ the recently revised statute that’s also known as an “Anti-SLAPP” law.
Anti-SLAPP laws protect people from retaliatory lawsuits when exercising free speech in public affairs, like journalism or petitioning the government.
PINAC’s Gray has been harassed by police for First Amendment audits, arrested for lawful photography in public and exonerated, disparaged in person and been victorious in court, but this is the first time a public agency has filed a SLAPP suit to limit Mr. Gray’s constitutionally protected activities as a photojournalist.
And his oversight duties as a parent.
You see, one of Gray’s own children rides daily on those busses, and three attend St. Johns schools.
“The whole investigation was inspired by SJCSD bus 268, which crashed and caused a severe injury to a 12 year-old student. When we made the public records request, it showed that no pre-trip inspection record was made that day,” Gray said.
“Included in the public records obtained, SJCSD Director of Transportation Al Pantano included a letter explaining that he removed the pre-trip inspection report from the bus, and ‘noticed that driver Joseph Sanks had not annotated a pre-trip inspection for the 11/18/2015 of the crash’.” continued Gray, “In that letter, Pantano stated: ‘Sanks immediately shared with me that he completed a thorough pre-trip inspection as normal prior to his AM route. Mr. Sanks further shared with me that he routinely completes the paperwork for the pre-trip check sheet at Bartram Trail High School following his last morning school route.'” (see image at bottom)
“So here we have a bus driver admitting that he’s routinely violating regulations in a public record by a senior official, but Superintendent Joyner seems unconcerned.”
In Jeff Gray’s video from early December shown below, he recorded multiple SJCSD school bus drivers on camera, skipping required Federal and State required pre-trip inspection before a school bus departs, and on multiple days.
One school bus driver even hit a parked car and nearly hit Gray’s vehicle while recording.
At least the bus driver did the right thing and alerted police leaving a report to for the owner of the parked car.
We reported on Superintendent Joyner’s venomous dislike for Jeff Gray in September, which makes this lawsuit a very personal grudge match by the top ranking school administrator against one of his school district’s parents.
But every taxpayer in St. Johns County is stuck footing the legal bill.
Pointedly, Joyner also personally sent him an expansive formal Trespass Notice Letter (seen below) invoking an outsized Florida schools trespassing law called a “School Safety Zone” near schools, which seems intended to keep non-custodial parents away from school children.
“Tonight, my son has a guitar recital at St. Augustine High School and it’s ridiculous, but I had to get written permission from his school principal to attend,” said the incredulous Gray. A copy of the Superintendent’s letter can be seen below
Back in September, St. Johns Schools Superintendent Joe Joyner even told the local St. Augustine Register that his top legislative priority is obtaining a public records exemption in response to Jeff Gray’s investigatory activities.
Any member of the public in Florida has a Right under the state Constitution’s Section 24 to inspect public records, and clearly a journalist’s investigation into school bus safety is a public interest investigation that the Sunshine Law gives right to the general public to request vital bus maintenance records.
When those requests videos are recorded or photographs shot or petitions seeking release of public records at our public schools, the first amendment should apply as those activities are clearly a pre-cursor to expressive speech, especially when intended for publication.
In Mr. Gray’s case, he issues frequent news reports about his findings – often to the chagrin of school board officials, and others who he finds deviating from the law – all of which can be found on YouTube in his popular channel HonorYourOath.
The St. Johns County School District (SJCSD) hired outside law firm of Dell & Graham to sue Gray.
Lawyer David M. Delaney wasted no time impugning Gray’s journalistic bona fides throughout the district’s complaint, claiming that, “Defendants’ interest was in scamming the School Board, starting with catching an unsuspecting employee off guard and unprepared for his request,” and later continue alleging a felony wiretapping violation by Gray (in their civil complaint) and accusing Gray of splitting fees with an attorney from prior public records lawsuits.
Delaney did not respond to our phone request for comment.
Gray told PINAC News editors how farcically ironic the district’s claim of fee splitting was, considering that he’s never won any monetary judgement or settlement of any kind with the lawyer who represented him in the specified court cases.
It’s uncertain why the SJCSD chose to hire a top notch Board Certified Education Attorney to pursue civil litigation, rather than hiring a Board Certified Civil Trial Attorney to pursue their action filed in the 7th Judicial Circuit covering St. Johns, which also claims “abuse of process” and “malicious prosecution.”
We sought comment from civil litigation firm Kluger Kaplan’s lawyers Abbey Kaplan and Marko Cerenko blogged in 2013 that Florida case law makes obtaining a judgement under those charges is exceedingly difficult to obtain, and has five elements.
(1) a criminal or civil judicial proceeding was commenced against the plaintiff; (2) the proceeding was instigated by the defendant; (3) the proceeding ended in favor of the plaintiff; (4) the proceeding was instigated with malice or without probable cause; and (5) the plaintiff suffered damages as a result of the defendant’s filing of the litigation.
Regarding the law, Mr. Kaplan told PINAC News that, “The issue of malicious prosecution staying alive is pending in front of the Florida Supreme Court today. Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeals (DCA) decided two cases differently than the 3rd DCA has decided in Miami. The 4th District certified the question, but the Supreme Court has not ruled yet.”
In fact, it’s tough to for a lay person to determine for sure, but its difficult to understand exactly what cause of action St. Johns School Board is claiming as an actual injury.
Over and over the lawsuit – shown below – cites that Mr. Gray earns money from advertising and donations, but fails to explain why thousands of random people over the internet support Gray’s news gathering activities.
Any lay person can grasp Jeff’s reporting is on matters of the greatest public interest, which provides one of the few checks or balances to the wildly out of control governments in northern Florida.
It’s accepted practice that journalists earn revenue through advertising, but if you believe the school district’s lawyers, Gray is bent on extracting a commercial profit just by making public records requests that impact child safety for the 45 public schools in St Johns.
Lawyers certainly earn fees for service though, and at this time it’s unknown how much tax payer money St. Johns County Schools has spent pursuing Mr. Gray for his journalism, but the expense of sending Sheriffs to the door, and a statewide law firm with Board Certified counsel cannot come cheaply.
Gray questioned why such extraordinary resources were being diverted from childhood education into one man’s quest to suppress investigative journalism saying, “They’ve got the audacity to call me a bully with their expensive lawyer, but they’re bullying a citizen who is doing nothing more than seeking the civil right of public records access to hold them responsible for child safety.”
“They’re the real bullies. They’re retaliating against me.”
Superintendent Joyner did not return multiple calls and voice messages left seeking comment. An email was sent requesting a copy of his school district’s bus safety policy and with additional questions, but at this time the school official has not responded.
It was just this past summer, PINAC traveled to Jacksonville to chide the 4th District Court’s chief judge Mark Mahon for issuing a blatantly unconstitutional order which suspended first amendment protected free speech on the Fourth of July outside the $360,000,000 newly constructed Duval County courthouse where he presides.
But violating the constitution doesn’t only happen in Florida’s Duval County.
St. Johns County is the next county south, and they clearly prefer violating constitutional rights so they can cover up the unsafe condition of an entire county’s fleet of school busses transporting Jeff Gray’s, and possibly your children.
— SJC School District (@SJCSD) October 6, 2015