Social Media Content Can Derail Litigation (Linda Stout v. Gardendale City Bd. of Edu.)
I am prefacing this article by saying that I am a resident of Gardendale, Alabama. This article is not a commentary on Gardendale’s efforts to secede its schools system from Jefferson County, nor am I expressing any opinion about the rulings of either the 11th Circuit or Judge Haikala in the United State District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. My purpose here is to illustrate the long teeth of social media content and how Facebook posts can be used to show intent (fairly or not), and thereby impute motives to the actors involved in litigation. Spoiler: It can be very bad for the parties.
The Use of Social Media Content in the Gardendale Secession Case
In the last few decades, a number of municipalities have withdrawn their school from the Jefferson County system and form independent school districts. Gardendale is the most recent such school to attempt to do so. Their efforts met with opposition, and the issue ended up in court in front of Judge Haikala of the United State District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. Judge Haikala found that Gardendale’s secession attempt was racially motivated and was impermissible (That’s the shortest possible version of her 190-page opinion), but her order incorporated a compromise that left both sides unhappy and resulted in an appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The parties briefed and argued their positions before the 11th Circuit, and recently, Judge William H. Pryor wrote the opinion for the 11th Circuit denying Gardendale the opportunity to form an independent school district. In his opinion, Judge Pryor spent as sizable chunk of space supporting the court’s opinion that Gardendale’s efforts were racially motivated. Much of the content he used to support the position was from Facebook posts on a Facebook group operated by supporters of the movement.
Below is the bulk of the section of Judge Pryor’s opinion that deals with the social media issue. You can download the opinion in its entirety here.
The Evolution of the Gardendale Secession Movement
The Gardendale secession movement started when the schools in that City were becoming racially diverse while the population of the City remained overwhelmingly white. In 1996, the student population in Gardendale was 92 percent white and 8 percent black. The current population of the City has a similar demographic makeup. As of 2010, more than 88 percent of the population was white and less than 9 percent was black. But by 2010, only one of the four public schools in Gardendale, Snow Rogers Elementary School, came close to mirroring the racial demographics of the City. In 2010, Snow Rogers Elementary was about 94 percent white and 4 percent black. The other three schools in Gardendale—Gardendale Elementary, Bragg Middle School, and Gardendale High School—were less than 80 percent white and 20 or more percent black. Gardendale Elementary was about 75 percent white and 20 percent black; Bragg Middle was about 77 percent white and 21 percent black; and Gardendale High was about 75 percent white and 23 percent black. And in later years, the schools continued to become more racially diverse in even starker contrast with the demographics of the City. Snow Rogers Elementary had a student population that was about 85 percent white and 5 percent black during the 2015–16 academic year. Gardendale Elementary was about 71 percent white and 24 percent black. Bragg Middle was about 67 percent white and 29 percent black. And Gardendale High was about 71 percent white and 27 percent black.
The racial diversity of the schools in Gardendale stems from the attendance of students who reside outside its municipal limits. Students from the predominantly black community of North Smithfield/Greenleaf Heights constitute nearly 30 percent of the black student population at Bragg Middle and more than 25 percent of the black student population at Gardendale High. Students from the unincorporated and predominantly white community of Mount Olive as well as students from the more integrated Town of Brookside and City of Graysville also attend the middle and high schools in Gardendale. Dozens of black students have taken advantage of the majority-to-minority transfer provision in the 1971 order to attend schools in Gardendale. For example, from 2009 to 2016, anywhere from 12 to 22 black students attended Gardendale High annually as transfer students. After the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 20 U.S.C. §§ 6301 et seq., required public school boards to permit students attending schools “identified for school improvement” to transfer to schools not so identified, 20 U.S.C. § 6316 (repealed 2015), the district court also amended the 1971 order to permit some black students from less successful schools to transfer to Snow Rogers Elementary and Bragg Middle. Because of capacity issues, the district court permitted only 12 students to transfer to Bragg Middle for each of the relevant years. In sum, Gardendale schools are racially diverse institutions in an otherwise white enclave in large part because zoning and desegregation transfer opportunities permit other Jefferson County students to attend the schools.
Against this backdrop, four individuals, Tim Bagwell, Chris Lucas, David Salters, and Chris Segroves, launched a campaign to create a municipal school system for Gardendale. Segroves later became the president of the Gardendale Board. Lucas became a member of the Board. And Bagwell and Salters served on an advisory board.
As part of their campaign, Bagwell, Lucas, and Salters created and maintained a Facebook page titled “Gardendale City Schools.” The page was publicly accessible, but the secession leaders served as page administrators with the ability to approve new members, delete posts, and change the privacy settings.
From the start, the secession leaders expressed concern about the changing demographics of the Gardendale schools. Salters explained in one post that the population of the predominantly white City of Gardendale looked different from the more diverse student population at the Gardendale schools: “A look around at our community sporting events, our churches are great snapshots of our community. A look into our schools, and you’ll see something totally different.” Bagwell alluded to those demographic differences when he listed among the benefits of a municipal system, “better control over the geographic composition of the student body [and] protection against the actions of other jurisdictions that might not be in our best interests.”
The secession leaders argued that a separate school system would give the residents of Gardendale greater control over their children’s education, improve the academic quality of the schools, and permit Gardendale “to control [its] own revenue stream.” But the secession leaders never met with representatives of the Jefferson County Board to discuss their grievances, and they struggled to identify specific deficiencies in the County schools. Segroves testified that he “had no involvement in the schools in Jefferson County prior to . . . serving on the [Gardendale] [B]oard.” When asked to identify “specific changes that [he] would make if [Gardendale] were allowed to separate,” Salters replied, “Just overall improvements, general improvements of education which are reflected in the size of the school system.” And Bagwell stated that “at least historically in many areas, including Alabama, a smaller system with individual local control, historically they tend to perform better academically than larger systems.” He added that a municipal school system “seems to be a component for a vital community with higher-than-average growth and desirability.”
The secession leaders and others frequently blamed “non-residents,” particularly students from the predominantly black community of North Smithfield, for allegedly draining resources from the Gardendale schools. In response to a suggestion that racial concerns were animating the movement, Salters stated in a Facebook post that “non-resident students are increasing at a [sic] alarming rate in our schools.” “They consume the resources of our schools, our teachers and our resident students, then go home” without “contribut[ing] financially.” He stated that he would “welcome those students,” but only if they “move to Gardendale or pay a transfer fee.” One online participant put it more bluntly: “[D]id you know we are sending school buses to Center point [sic] and busing kids to OUR schools in Gardendale, as well as from Smithville!” That participant stated that some of the transfer students “have been bused here for years due to the desegregation from decades ago and that should have already been changed because we have a very diverse population now in our area.” The participant said, “We are busting at the seams and can’t continue on this path!” Salters expressed similar concerns: “We are using buses to transport non-residents into our schools (without additional funding) from as far away as Center Point (there’s your redistribution of wealth).”
Secession supporters frequently derided the City of Center Point, a predominantly black community that used to be a predominantly white community and has no municipal school system. In 1970, Center Point was over 99 percent white, but by 2010, about 33 percent of Center Point was white and 63 percent was black. When comparing Gardendale to Center Point, secession leaders warned residents that if they failed to act, Gardendale would follow a similar trajectory. For example, at a public meeting, Salters stated, “It likely will not turn out well for Gardendale if we don’t do this. We don’t want to become what” Center Point has become. And an online participant asked, “[W]ould you like to live in Center Point or Adamsville?” She “encourage[d] [another online participant] to ride around those areas, maybe even Pinson or Huffman and think about how quickly an area’s demographics change.” She added, “This is about a community wanting to progress, not regress.”
In contrast with their comments about Center Point, the secession leaders touted the predominantly white community of Mount Olive as a desirable area to be included in the new school system. In a post on Facebook, Lucas contrasted the intended treatment of Mount Olive with that of “minorities.” In response to a question about the impact of “[f]ederal desegregation laws” on the proposed secession, he explained that minorities not residing in Gardendale would not be students in the new system, but that Gardendale might annex Mount Olive:
1) Will kids in North Gardendale (who may currently be zoned for county schools in Morris) be zoned for a city school system? Yes. All kids within the municipal boundaries of Gardendale would go to schools within the new system.
2) Would Gardendale be required to bring in minorities from outside of the municipal boundaries to achieve some sort of quota? No. The school system is for residents of Gardendale (whatever those boundaries end up being and whatever that racial make-up is). The idea is that it might include an expansion to include an annexation of certain parts of Mount Olive.
Indeed, the secession leaders and others regularly discussed the status of Mount Olive, though practical obstacles related to the local fire district ultimately thwarted their intended plans.
Some supporters of secession expressed their displeasure at the prospect of allowing any non-residents to attend the municipal schools. Bagwell defended on Facebook permitting the attendance of North Smithfield students as “a specific, technical, tactical decision aimed at addressing a recognized road block to breaking away.” And he later described that “bitter . . . pill” as something that weighed against the “ultimate . . . goal” of secession:
You and I may not think that it is particularly fair to accept an out-of-district area not subject to our control or taxation as a price to pay to gain approval for separation, and we would be within reason to feel that way. The extent to which fair has anything to do with it depends on how you weigh your priorities in deciding whether it is too bitter a pill to swallow or if the ultimate treatment goal, i.e. separation, is worth it.
It’s impossible to know whether the decisions of Judge Haikala or the 11th Circuit would have differed had these indicting statements not been made on Facebook. Maybe there would have been enough other evidence for them to find that the secession attempt was racially motivated. But for Judge Pryor to have spent that much time incorporating the social media content into his opinion, you can know for a certainty that it weighed on the 11th Circuit’s ruling.
This is but one case showing how social media content can derail litigation and cause massive wreckage to a case. Associate’s Mind has recently written about how social media affected a 9th Circuit decision.
Be mindful of what you put online. I’ve heard several folks say, “Never put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want a lawyer to hand you as an exhibit while you’re on a witness stand.” This seems like a good rule of thumb for anyone to consider before publishing social media content.
Here are a couple other topics where I’ve written about litigation and social media content: The Discoverability of Social Media Content in Civil Litigation and Responding to Social Media Discovery Objections in Alabama.