The state Supreme Court has reversed a previous award of $100,000 in damages to a man whose First Amendment rights were violated when he was gaveled into silence during a 1997 WW-P school board meeting.
The Supreme Court upheld this month that Philip Besler’s right to free speech was violated during the public comment period of the meeting on January 28, 1997. A jury in 2004 found that Besler’s rights were violated during the meeting when he was gaveled into silence by former school board president Lester Bynum after having spoken only for 30 seconds.
Besler got up to address concerns about the alleged failure of the district to hold coaches accountable for inappropriate and unsportsmanlike conduct. Besler alleged his daughter’s high school basketball coach, Daniel Hussong, had caused her to develop an eating disorder.
However, the Supreme Court ruled that the $100,000 awarded in damages for pain and suffering was excessive. “Besler presented sufficient evidence for the jury to determine that the board silenced him for no reason other than the unpopular viewpoint he express, in violation of his free speech rights,” a summary of the decision stated.
“Besler offered only minimal evidence of emotional distress — transient embarrassment and humiliation as a consequence of the abrupt manner in which he was prevented from completing his remarks,” the official opinion stated. “We conclude that the damages award is so clearly excessive that it constitutes a miscarriage of justice and therefore remand to the trial court for a remittitur or, alternatively, a new trial on damages.”
The most recent court action was the last leg of a 2004 case that pitted the district against Besler’s daughter, Jennifer.
Although Jennifer’s portion of the case was long-ago resolved, the issues remained over her father’s right to free speech. In the original case, Jennifer Besler alleged that she developed an eating disorder due to mistreatment in 1995 by her basketball coach, Hussong. Following a lengthy trial, a jury awarded Besler $1.5 million in March, 2004.
A week later, the award was overturned by the trial judge, Paulette Sapp-Peterson, who found that Besler had failed to prove that she had been caused permanent physical harm, as required under state tort law. But she did let stand the jury award to Philip Besler, who now lives in Florida. Following that, Paulette Sapp-Peterson also ruled that Besler was also entitled to compensation for legal fees, interest, and state and federal taxes. The judge in the case let stand a $100,000 jury award plus legal fees, for a total compensation of $559,359. In 2008, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court upheld Sapp-Peterson’s rulings.