A federal court order against the Pennsbury School District for curtailing public comments that officials deemed abusive or irrelevant has districts across the region reconsidering how they’ll handle heated or hateful speech during school board meetings — a regular phenomenon in some communities over the last year.

The order, issued by U.S. District Judge Gene Pratter, came in response to a lawsuit filed Oct. 1 by four residents in the Bucks County district who said their comments were censored, limited, or disrupted by the board, largely as they questioned its equity initiatives.

“The First Amendment protections for free speech apply to speaking at public school board meetings,” Pratter said in an opinion accompanying her Nov. 17 order, which granted a preliminary injunction against the district but hasn’t settled the case.

She agreed that Pennsbury’s policies prohibiting certain comments — including those considered “personally directed,” “offensive,” “abusive,” and “irrelevant” — appeared to be vague and overbroad, and directed the district to stop enforcing them.

Many area school boards have a similar policy in place, modeled after a template recommended by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, and those boards “are going to have to suspend” it, said Jeffrey Sultanik, a solicitor for multiple Philadelphia-area districts.

While the Pennsbury order applies only to that district, it could be cited in lawsuits against other school boards. And Pennsbury says it plans to appeal — which could lead to a decision that would be binding on all school systems within the nine counties of the federal court’s Eastern District. In the meantime, Annette Stevenson, a spokesperson for the school boards association, said its model policy was “currently under review” but declined to comment further.

The Pennsbury school board “is proud of its work during its meetings to ensure all children in the district have equal opportunity to an excellent education, and that work will continue,” said spokesperson Jen Neill. “The district welcomes the input of its stakeholders in a productive, respectful manner as a way to achieve this goal.”

Among the residents who brought the lawsuit was Simon Campbell, a former Pennsbury school board member who said that the country “was founded by disruptive, disrespectful people.” He and fellow plaintiffs were represented by the Institute for Free Speech, which called the order a “wakeup for school boards across America.” The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit is also representing members of the Moms for Liberty group in a similar case against Florida’s Brevard County School Board.

Pennsbury’s board garnered broad attention this summer after a fiery speech by Campbell accusing the board of censorship — including calling its president Benito Mussolini — went viral. The president, Christine Toy-Dragoni, said she received death and rape threats that escalated with the national attention.

Some thought last month’s court decision could stoke more antagonism.

“It has the potential to make public comment more disrespectful,” said Kenneth Roos, another local school district solicitor, though he added that being recorded during meetings “hopefully ... is a disincentive to people to behave in an egregious or inappropriate way.”

In Central Bucks, school board member Karen Smith saw Pratter’s order as “like putting gasoline on a fire at this point.”

At that board’s last meeting, some public comments drew outrage — including one suggesting ties between Jews and organized crime and calling for a stand “against Zionism and communism,” and another worrying that transgender students had “the right” to rape girls in the women’s bathroom.

Smith interjected during that latter comment, calling out, “That’s enough.” But the board president, Dana Hunter, allowed the commenter to continue — noting that “this is his three minutes.”

Smith said her reaction grew out of an “accumulation” of comments during past meetings targeting transgender people. “We don’t have that many of these students, but it’s very difficult for them,” she said. The board’s policy would have justified ending the comments, she said, but “now we can’t do anything.”

Smith and three other members of the nine-member board released a statement after the meeting condemning the comments. The board meets again — with newly elected members — on Monday.

Tina Stoll, the school board president in North Penn, said her board has been advised that it can respond to comments that may be hateful — “maybe not get into it tit-for-tat” but make clear the board doesn’t endorse such speech.

“We can’t grab the mic, or cut them off, or anything. Frankly, I think that’s sometimes what they want — to get the attention,” said Stoll, whose board has hosted tense meetings, particularly around masking.

When people have leveled accusations against board members, they’ve been permitted to speak: Stoll said: “We’ve always said, ‘Thank you for your comment. Next.’ ”

Some have sought to limit the role of board members in policing public comment. In West Chester — where school board president Chris McCune took the microphone this summer from a woman whose time limit expired as she was demanding to know whether the district taught critical race theory — the district had its solicitor start attending meetings and enforce the limits.

In Philadelphia, the ACLU sued the district in March on behalf of two community groups alleging a new policy limiting the number of people who could comment at meetings prevented meaningful participation.

The Pennsbury parents’ lawsuit focused in part on actions by the district’s solicitor, Peter Amuso. During a May board meeting, Amuso cut off three men who had begun to criticize the district’s equity policy. One had said that diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts were based on a “predetermined narrative,” ignoring, “for example, that first-generation Nigerian immigrants excel.”

“You’re done!” Amuso shouted at each of the men, calling their comments “irrelevant.”

That meeting followed controversy around the district’s handling of public comments at its March meeting. The man who spoke about Nigerian immigrants, Doug Marshall, also one of the plaintiffs in the censorship lawsuit, at the March meeting had questioned equity efforts while explaining the history of racial problems in the country.

Marshall wasn’t interrupted that night. But at the urging of the district’s equity and diversity director, the board later struck his remarks from a video recording of the meeting, issuing a statement that “the comments escalated from expressing a viewpoint to expressing beliefs and ideas that were abusive and coded in racist terms, also known as ‘dog whistles.’ ”

In her opinion, Pratter, while not calling Marshall’s comments offensive, wrote that the First Amendment “protects offensive speakers,” and said censorship of comments deemed racist by the district was “impermissible viewpoint discrimination.”

She didn’t agree with the district’s argument that not enforcing its policies would lead to violence — calling the claim “deliberately provocative.” She noted the board could call police if a speaker threatens violence, a policy the plaintiffs didn’t challenge.

They also didn’t challenge a ban on obscene comments. And while Pennsbury can no longer prohibit “personally directed” comments, lawyers say that doesn’t mean school boards have to allow speakers to target a board member’s family or other personal characteristics — only their role in the district.

Sultanik said the decision could be viewed optimistically, as an invitation for “tolerance of another viewpoint that you might find personally offensive.”

But in a time of heightened animosity and polarization — and the potential for another round of contentious board meetings while the future of Pennsylvania’s school-masking order is up in the air — that might not be realistic, Sultanik said.

“I really believe that much of this public discourse is doing very little to change anybody’s mind,” he said.