By Chris Collins
Kyle Knight has filed a lawsuit against the Baker School District claiming his civil rights were violated when three of his fellow School Board members voted to censure him on the recommendation of Superintendent Walt Wegener.
Knight, who has clashed with Wegener and some board members several times since taking office in July 2011, seeks $500,000 in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitive damages along with attorney fees and costs in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court at Pendleton.
The actual monetary amounts would be determined after trial if Knight proves the allegations in each complaint, said Tyler Smith, a Canby attorney who is representing Knight.
A jury could award Knight more in punitive damages than the $200,000 listed in the lawsuit, Smith said.
Wegener said the school district has turned the lawsuit over to its insurance company.
Knight said Thursday that any monetary damages he receives from the lawsuit, except for any money needed to publish material to clear his name and to pay attorney fees, would go to an educational foundation to benefit Baker students.
In addition to the school district, the lawsuit names as defendants Wegener; Lynne Burroughs, school board chair; and director Mark Henderson.
Wegener said Wednesday that he had not seen the lawsuit and had no comment.
Burroughs also declined to comment when contacted by phone Thursday.
Henderson said Thursday that the lawsuit was nothing new.
"It's just another event in a long string of distractions," he said.
Burroughs and Henderson are the subjects of a recall campaign led by Baker City resident Kari McQuisten.
McQuisten and other recall committee members have criticized the board's April 10 vote to censure Knight and thereby restrict his access to certain district information and district employees.
Board member Andrew Bryan also voted for the motion to censure Knight, but Bryan is not a defendant in the lawsuit.
The fifth director, Jim Longwell, voted against the censure, as did Knight himself.
Knight said he originally had planned to name only Wegener and Burroughs, who represents the board in her position as chair. Henderson was added after he and Burroughs mailed two fliers - one in late August and one earlier this month - to district patrons.
Burroughs and Henderson said the fliers are not related to the recall campaign. Instead, Burroughs said she was responding to questions about the censure and Henderson said he was responding to questions he'd received about his five-year plan for the district.
The second flier accuses Knight and Longwell of taking direction from the conservative political group, Western Libery Network, which has its headquarters in Western Oregon.
The lawsuit's first three claims allege that Knight's civil rights were violated. The fourth claim alleges the defendants damaged his reputation.
The civil rights claims name the district, Wegener and Burroughs as defendants. Henderson is included in the defamation claim.
In Count 1 of the first claim, Knight alleges the defendants have violated his right to free speech. Count 2 claims they have deprived him of his right to associate with other board members and school employees, and Count 3 alleges that the defendants retaliated against him for "exercising his first amendment rights to express his opinion on matters of public concern; exercising his right to speak out on legislative and policy matters before the School District."
Knight alleges the defendants violated his 14th amendment rights by depriving him of equal protection under the law. He alleges that after voting to censure him, they treated him "as an outsider, persona non grata" and deprived him of "the rights that other similarly situated board members enjoy."
The lawsuit maintains that Knight "has been treated differently than other school board members based on his political viewpoint, his religion, his opinions on policy, for refusing to speak against his will, and for asserting his constitutional and statutory rights."
As part of the complaint, Knight seeks an injunction ordering the defendants to restore all rights and powers entitled to him as a member of the Baker School Board - in essence, to revoke the censure.
In Count 1 of his third claim, Knight again alleges the defendants violated his 14th amendment right to due process under the law. Count 2 claims he was denied his right as an elected school board member to "fully and meaningfully" represent district patrons.
The fourth claim alleges Knight was defamed by the defendants, citing comments they made at meetings, information contained in the two fliers distributed by Burroughs and Henderson, and statements made by Wegener in an email he sent to Knight and the other directors on April 8, two days before Knight was censured.
In the email, Wegener stated that Knight had "violated his oath several dozen times including violations of law, violations of the tenants of the Constitutions of the U.S. and Oregon and numerous policy violations. Because he represents a serious threat to the district and to each of us severally and together we must legally separate him from us."
According to the complaint, the defendants' "false" statements have subjected Knight to "hatred, contempt or ridicule" in the community and has caused people to lose trust in him.
He further maintains that as a result, his career and future employment opportunities have been jeopardized and he's been ostracized by members of his church.
He claims he would be required to "publicly broadcast the correct information thousands and thousands of times on paid commercial messaging, television, radio, mail adds, to correct and undue even part of the damage Defendants have incurred upon Plaintiff."
"Their false statements have damaged many relationships," Knight said in a telephone interview.
As a result, he has had to cancel a business venture he had planned to undertake.
"I was told I was a liability and it all got closed down," he said.
Knight blames part of what he sees as mistreatment by other board members on his age. He turned 21 on Tuesday, the day of the most recent school board meeting.
"If I were 30 or 50, this would not be happening to me," he said.
Knight said he had hoped to settle the matter without going to court.
His lawyer, Smith, said he wrote to the district in May, advising them that they could not restrict Knight's role as a board member as part of the censure.
In June Knight issued a notice of his intent to file a lawsuit in the hope that the board would rescind the censure.
"They don't take me seriously because of my age," he said.
Knight is a college student who works part time and serves in the National Guard. He said he is paying for his legal expenses with his own money.
"I had savings and that's what I used," he said. "This is a very important issue to me. My motorcycle fund had to be put way down the line."
The next step will be for the district to file an answer to the claims, Smith said.
He maintains that case law supports Knight's claim that the board acted inappropriately by punishing him as part of the censure.
"Normally censure is a public reprimand and that's OK, that's allowed by law," Smith said. "But when they turn it into a punishment ... they are restricting him from serving as a school board member.
"Case law says that's a violation of civil rights," he said. "It's very rare and it's very rare for a reason - because it's not allowed."