Judge mulls decision on anti-amendment campaigning

by: Richard Elliot Updated:

GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. —

A judge's decision on whether Gwinnett County Schools and the Georgia School Board Association can campaign against the charter schools amendment could have long reaching effects beyond this case.
 
On Wednesday, four people asked Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge Dawson Jackson for an injunction stopping the school district and GSBA from using, what they claim, is taxpayer money to campaign against the amendment.
 
"It is an unremarkable proposition in Georgia law that if public employees want to campaign, they need to do so on their personal time," said plaintiff's attorney Josh Belinfante.
 
He claims Gwinnett School Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks and others have worked during business hours on a campaign to fight the charter school amendment. He believes that violates state law.
 
But GSBA attorney Phil Hartley argued that his organization is a non-profit corporation not governed by those laws, and any attempt to stifle their campaign against the amendment would violate their rights to free speech and could have a chilling effect on future debates.  He also said there is no evidence that any school district employee campaigned while at work.
 
"We certainly believe that an injunction entered by the court with no evidence to support it would be an infringement on the First Amendment rights of the School Board Association, the Gwinnett County School District, the employees of the Gwinnett County School District and frankly the citizens of the state in that it would shut down the debate on one side on this important issue," said Hartley.
 
Belinfante concedes thousands of people have already early voted on this issue, but he believes they need the injunction to stop any further campaigning before the general election.
 
"There are certainly thousands of votes that have already taken place," said Belinfante.  "But there's going to be thousands more happening every day and even more obviously on Election Day.  So we think that while this case is not about the amendment, it's about the use of taxpayer funds for that."
 
Judge Jackson took the case under advisement.  He could issue a ruling at any time.