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District 155 denies stifling Cary-Grove High School student's free speech

CARY – Community High School District 155 officials have denied allegations that they violated a student’s First Amendment rights by suspending him after learning he posted a video of Cary’s mayor giving a presentation at the school.

The district filed its response to the lawsuit nearly three weeks after reaching a tentative agreement with Cary-Grove senior Matthew Ahmann. A court document filed Jan. 12 stated that the settlement was awaiting approval from the District 155 board. Between executive sessions at a Jan. 18 meeting, however, board President Adam Guss said the board was “not there yet” regarding any action related to the suit.

District 155’s attorney, Babak Bakhtiari, could not be reached for comment Monday.

In the lawsuit, Ahmann claims that Mayor Mark Kownick approached the school’s dean, Jim Kelly, about the student’s “prior political activity” and asked that he be restrained from saying or doing anything during the mayor’s speech Sept. 26. The district has denied that administrators spoke with Kownick about Ahmann’s political beliefs or warned there “would be negative consequences” if the student said or did anything during the presentation.

“The board admits that [Ahmann] had previously made an online post on a nonschool account containing a disparaging remark about the mayor and his family, but lacks sufficient information to admit or deny the general allegations regarding [Ahmann’s] prior expression of political views outside of school,” the board’s attorney wrote.

Ahmann is a moderator of an online group that discusses political topics and has criticized Kownick’s politics in the past, according to the lawsuit. He’s listed as the admin of a private Facebook group called Cary-Grove Politics.

The district went on to say it suspended Ahmann not because he published a video of the mayor, but because he violated the school’s policy against using cellphones.

“The board admits that it subsequently became aware that [Ahmann] had used his cellphone to surreptitiously record the entirety of his AP Government class on September 26, 2017, in violation of board policies and the student handbook, and had posted a portion of the recording online,” according to the board’s response.

District 155’s student handbook states that students’ phones should be silenced, off and out of sight during class. Special permission is needed to use cellphones at other, nonspecified times.

Reached by phone Monday, Ahmann’s attorneys at Lisle-based firm Ekle, Williams and Provenzale declined to comment. Attorneys for both sides are scheduled to discuss a potential settlement Feb. 22. That meeting could be canceled if an agreement is reached before then.

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