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Denver Public Schools ordered to lift ban on outspoken critic Brandon Pryor

A man speaks into a bullhorn. A high-rise building looms behind him.

Brandon Pryor speaks to supporters during a protest on Oct. 26 against his ban from Denver Public Schools.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

A federal court judge has sided with outspoken Denver Public Schools critic Brandon Pryor and ordered the district to lift a ban that prevented Pryor from stepping on most district property, volunteering as a football coach, and speaking during public school board meetings.

In a Dec. 23 order, Senior U.S. District Court Judge John Kane called Denver Public Schools’ actions “clumsy and imperious,” and said the ban likely violated Pryor’s First Amendment right. He ordered the district to lift the ban before the case even goes to trial. 

Denver Public Schools filed a notice Friday that it is appealing the decision. A district spokesperson said this week that the district “has no comment on the current ruling.”

In an interview, Pryor said he’s encouraged by the ruling. He said he plans to return to speaking at school board meetings, volunteering as a coach for the Far Northeast Warriors football team, and spending school days at the Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy, a high school modeled on historically Black colleges and universities that he helped found.

“I think I’m one of the loudest advocates for Black students in Denver,” he said. “Some consider my activism abrasive, and that’s why we’re here, because I speak truth to power in a way that’s not nice. The treatment that we receive — my tone matches that treatment. 

“It’s not my job to make oppressors feel comfortable. It’s my job to make them feel uncomfortable to the point of change.”

Pryor, who has two sons in the district, has been a harsh critic of Denver Public Schools since 2017. In mid-October, the district served him with an eight-page letter accusing him of “repeated abusive, bullying, threatening, and intimidating conduct” directed at district employees. 

The letter cited several examples, including that Pryor yelled and cursed at administrators, made Facebook posts calling for the principal of Montbello High School and other employees to be fired, and “berated” two district officials in person after a school board meeting.

The letter banned him from all district property, except for the schools his sons attend. It also revoked his coaching privileges and barred him from giving public comment at board meetings.

Pryor’s wife, Samantha, is an attorney who filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court alleging that Denver Public Schools was violating her husband’s free speech rights. She requested that the federal court issue a preliminary injunction preventing the district from enforcing the ban.

After a seven-day hearing, Kane granted the preliminary injunction. In his ruling, Kane noted that “Denver Public Schools has a long history of systemic racism and discrimination,” and said he’s skeptical of the district’s arguments that Pryor acted uncivilly and unprofessionally.

“These accusations are necessarily met with skepticism, as standards of ‘civility’ and ‘professionalism’ have been used as tools of discrimination and to silence opposition,” he wrote.

While school employees deserve to feel safe in their workplaces, Kane said that “as public servants, they cannot be insulated from criticism related to their employment.”

Pryor’s speech — specifically his Facebook posts calling for the Montbello High School principal to be fired, which the district’s attorney testified was the catalyst for the ban — “did not endanger the safety or security” of any Denver Public Schools employees, Kane wrote.

The judge concluded that the ban was “likely the result of improper retaliation” against Pryor.

“Defendants seek to preserve the ‘tranquility’ of DPS,” he wrote. “In short, their focus in these proceedings is on the absence of tension, not the presence of justice.”

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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