DOWNINGTOWN, Pa. — A school district in Pennsylvania has agreed to an out-of-court settlement to ensure that free speech is protected on the public sidewalks surrounding its schools. The district had been asked to issue an educational memo to employees of Downingtown STEM Academy after the vice president of the school yelled and cursed at two teenage abortion abolitionists who were holding signs on the sidewalk.
The Downingtown Area School District also submitted a letter to the teens to acknowledge that Vice Principal Zach Ruff had behaved improperly.
“You had every right under our Constitution’s First Amendment to speak and display signs like you did, and that right was violated by Dr. Ruff,” it read. “Rest assured that Dr. Ruff’s actions do not represent the policy of the School District. Instead, we will be providing information to our employees on the First Amendment rights of individuals.”
Click here to read the full settlement and accompanying documents, dated July 14.
As previously reported, the initial incident occurred on April 21 as homeschooler Conner Haines, 16, and his sister Lauren, 19, held signs outside the school that bore messages both about preborn babies and salvation in Christ. However, they were soon approached by Ruff, who took issue with the subject matter and became irate.
He told the Haines’ to leave, but they refused, citing that they were simply engaging in free speech on a public sidewalk.
“These are the people who are being murdered. Sir, these are image bearers of God,” Connor Haines told the dean of academics and student life.
“You can go to Hell where they are, too,” Ruff responded. “They’re not children. They’re cells.”
When Haines urged Ruff to look to Christ, he began to laugh and replied, “I’m as gay as the day is long and twice as sunny. I don’t give a [expletive] what you think Jesus tells me and what I should and should not be doing.”
During the encounter, Ruff also began showily dancing and singing “I Love a Parade” so as to keep students who were leaving for the day from seeing the teens’ signs. He also said angrily with a pointy finger, “Shut your mouth and don’t talk to my students.”
Ruff was put on leave from Downingtown STEM Academy after the incident went public, and soon resigned, acknowledging that his behavior was inappropriate.
“In reviewing the video, Dr. Ruff knew that the conduct he displayed was not representative of who he is and was not representative of the kind of educational leader he prided himself on being,” the district explained in a statement in May. “Dr. Ruff has acknowledged that the demonstrators had a right to be on a public sidewalk. He acknowledged that his conduct cannot be defended or condoned and he deeply regretted his actions as displayed on the video.”
The religious liberties organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represented the Haines and requested the out-of-court settlement, says that it is pleased with the result.
“No government employee—especially someone with authority over students—should harass or threaten anyone for exercising their First Amendment protected freedoms in public,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot in a statement on Thursday. “Conner and Lauren Haines were peacefully expressing their pro-life views, holding signs and talking to those passing by.”
“The bullying and verbal abuse that Zach Ruff inflicted on Conner and Lauren, as documented in the video, made a policy clarification critically necessary, not only for the Haineses, but also for everyone in the Downingtown community,” he outlined. “We commend the district for doing the right thing to prevent this from ever happening again.”
The settlement does not involve any monetary damages or legal costs, only the training of staff on free speech and a written apology to the teens.