Anti-vaxxer sues school district after being banned from school property

By: - May 18, 2023 2:14 pm

Russell Hotchkiss speaks at the Dec. 13, 2021, meeting of the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s board meeting. (Photo from Cedar Rapids Community School District video)

A parent who protested the Cedar Rapids school district’s COVID-19 policies is now suing the school board for banning him from school property.

Russell Hotchkiss is suing the Cedar Rapids Community School District and its board in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, alleging retaliation in violation of his First Amendments rights under the U.S. Constitution as well as violations of the Iowa Open Meetings Law.

In court filings, Hotchkiss’ attorney, Alan Ostergren, claims that the school board, when faced with “legitimate criticism for their overbroad, pointless, and harmful response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” lashed out at Hotchkiss and permanently banned him from all school property.

The lawsuit alleges Hotchkiss had a son enrolled in Cedar Rapids’ Hiawatha Elementary School during the 2021-2022 school year. Believing the district’s policies related to the COVID-19 pandemic were harmful to students, Hotchkiss attended a November 2021 school board meeting to share his views.

According to the lawsuit, Hotchkiss “was pointed in his comments,” but refrained from profanity, aggressive language, and “any conduct that could be perceived as disruptive or threatening.”

A video of the school board meeting shows Hotchkiss protesting the government’s vaccine program for COVID-19 and the district’s mask mandates, telling the board, “COVID doesn’t affect kids – that has been proven … It has been proven they actually lack development, they regress, when you mask them all day long. That’s why they did it to slaves back in the day. Muslims used to do it all the time. You guys baffle me. What is it going to take to cut our kids loose? Cut ’em loose.”

A week later Hotchkiss met with the superintendent in her office to discuss his concerns in more detail. The lawsuit alleges the meeting “ended amicably” and the superintendent expressed no concerns about his behavior during the school board meeting.

Hotchkiss then signed up to speak at the district’s Dec. 13, 2021, school board meeting. Because he wanted to say more than could be expressed within the five-minute limit for speakers, he recruited other individuals to sign up to speak at the meeting and then yield their time to him.

The process resulted in Hotchkiss addressing the board for 29 minutes, quoting from the Bible at times and denouncing vaccines and mask mandates.

“Everyone I know who got the jab all got COVID,” he told board members. “If your vaccines work, why are we all wearing masks?… You have brought these vaccines in here that have been proven to kill people.”

Hotchkiss also threatened to sue the district for “millions” and hold the board members civilly and criminally liable if they did not change their polices. “If this madness does not stop – and stop tonight – this will move forward. The line was drawn and you crossed it,” he said. “Take that vote tonight — if you don’t, we’re coming.”

Hotchkiss planned to attend the next school board meeting, which was scheduled for Jan. 10, 2022, but was met at the school district office by three police officers and served with a no-trespassing notice.

The notice banned Hotchkiss from appearing on school district property for any reason from that date forward. The notice informed Hotchkiss the ban was the result of “your actions during the Nov. 15, 2021, and Dec. 13, 2021, Board of Education meetings,” which, the notice said, “included disruptive and threatening behavior towards Cedar Rapids Community School District school board members and staff.”

The notice included a statement that Hotchkiss could communicate with school board members in writing and that as a parent he could “communicate directly” with the principal of Hiawatha Elementary School by telephone.

Hotchkiss has been unable to attend at least 38 regular school board meetings since receiving the notice, the lawsuit alleges, and so he has taken advantage of Iowa’s open enrollment laws to move his son to a neighboring school district.

In addition to the school board, the lawsuit also names as defendants Russ Bush, who was the spouse of former school Superintendent Noreen Bush, who died in October of last year, and Tawana Grover, who succeeded Noreen Bush as superintendent.

The lawsuit seeks damages of $1,000 to $2,500 for each violation of the Iowa Open Meetings Act that occurred as the result of the ban on Hotchkiss’ attendance.

The school district has yet to file a response to the lawsuit.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.