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An arrest at a Miami-Dade school board meeting raises civil liberties concerns

Courtesy: Kat Duesterhaus
Miami-Dade schools police officers forcibly removed Caleb Freestone from the July 20, 2022 school board meeting. He was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, trespassing after a warning and resisting arrest without violence.

A recent meeting of the Miami-Dade County School Board devolved into a shouting match — and ended in an arrest. The board was debating whether to approve two comprehensive health textbooks, which included information on sex, contraception and abortion.

Right-wing opponents of the textbooks brought the meeting to a standstill. They yelled over board members, called out the superintendent by name, and derailed the deliberations.

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One person was arrested at the July 20 meeting — but it wasn’t any of the women who caused the disruptions. It was a left-wing activist named Caleb Freestone, who a bystander said had been sitting quietly. Now he and local advocates are questioning whether his arrest was politically motivated.

Opponents claim comprehensive sex ed is “indoctrination”

Dozens of people came to testify about the health textbooks — overwhelmingly speaking in support.

Among those arguing against the books were supporters of Moms for Liberty, a right-wing group that aligns with national conservative organizations. Some members have echoed QAnon conspiracy theories.

“The board that votes to adopt this … in the end, the country, the state and your community will consider all of you groomers,” Lourdes Galban said.

Some Republicans argue teaching about sex and LGBTQ people amounts to priming kids for sexual abuse. Survivors of abuse and advocates say this rhetoric is dangerously misleading and wrong.

Sydney Walsh
Miami Herald
A woman is escorted out by police at the Miami-Dade County School Board meeting on July 20, 2022. Parents and community members spoke during a heated discussion over whether the school board should adopt the sexual health education textbook “Comprehensive Health Skills” for middle and high school students.

“Indoctrination,” Maylin Villalonga said. “We’re not talking about sex education. We’re talking about Plan B pills.”

Later, as board members discussed their positions and prepared to cast their votes, Villalonga and others opposed to the textbooks began disrupting the meeting — yelling over Board Member Steve Gallon as he made his case for the materials and calling out Superintendent Jose Dotres.

“Madam Chair, I’m not going to be interrupted,” Gallon said, as the women continued to yell. “I’m not going to be interrupted.”

The disruption brought the meeting to a halt.

“Board attorney, do we have a sergeant at arms in this office that can help with this?” asked Board Member Luisa Santos.

Officers step in as disruption derails meeting

Multiple police officers asked the women to leave — saying at that point they were trespassing.

Lourdes Galban started yelling about antifa and pointed at someone sitting a few rows away.

"You have antifa here," Galban yelled. "That's antifa right there!"

School district police and security began surrounding a man named Caleb Freestone.

Kat Duesterhaus was sitting near Freestone in the auditorium. Duesterhaus is on the board of the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women and the two know each other from activism circles.

Duesterhaus says Freestone appeared to be sitting quietly.

“I was surprised when I saw all these police officers surrounding him,” Duesterhaus said. “There was nothing that I noticed that this activist was doing that was disruptive or would be any cause to remove him. So I started filming.”

Courtesy: Kat Duesterhaus
Courtesy: Kat Duesterhaus
Miami-Dade schools security and police officers began asking Caleb Freestone to leave a July 20, 2022 school board meeting after another member of the public pointed in his direction and shouted, "that's antifa."

In the video, Duesterhaus and Freestone can be heard asking the officers why he was being told to leave.

“Can we ask why?” Duesterhaus said.

“I need to know why,” Freestone said. “No one will tell me why.”

“You got to go,” an officer said.

Freestone was insistent: “No one will tell me why.”

“The building manager has ejected you from the premises,” an officer told him. “You got to go.”

“I do not consent to any search nor seizure,” Freestone told them. “I do not consent to any search nor seizure. Do not touch my possessions.”

Officers grabbed Freestone by the arms and forcibly removed him from the building.

Other people were escorted out too. But he was the only person arrested at that school board meeting. He spent the night in the county jail.

Freestone alleges his arrest was politically motivated

“I’m still a little shaken up,” Freestone told WLRN after he was released. “But more than anything, I'm angry.”

Duesterhaus said they were horrified by what happened.

“Somebody in the audience who was there not doing anything was targeted for no apparent reason and arrested,” Duesterhaus said. “They weren’t just detained. They had to spend a night in detention.”

Court records show Freestone was charged with disorderly conduct, trespassing after a warning and resisting an arrest without violence.

Courtesy: Kat Duesterhaus
Courtesy: Kat Duesterhaus
Miami-Dade schools security and police surround Caleb Duesterhaus just before physically removing him from the meeting. He was later arrested, charged and booked into the county jail.

Freestone alleges he was arrested because of his politics. He says he's not affiliated with antifa, a left-wing political movement known for direct action.

“I do support the general idea of an antifascist political movement and I believe that all political movements ought to be antifascist,” he said.

“This is not the first time that I've seen the school board, the security and the police department behave this way," Freestone said. "People who are accused of being the boogeyman antifa are met with significant police response, a repressive response.”

In response to questions from WLRN, the school district says Freestone’s arrest was “based solely on his own actions” that day. A spokesperson said he didn’t cooperate with district police while being escorted out — but wouldn’t say why he was asked to leave in the first place.

Freestone’s attorney raises concerns about civil liberties 

Freestone has had run-ins with right-wing activists at other school board meetings. He says last January the district gave him a permanent trespass warning — which he and his attorneys believe is unconstitutional.

“There is no legal basis for a permanent trespass like that,” said Joshua Tarjan, an attorney with the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Tarjan is representing Freestone and has advocated on his behalf in the past.

“First of all, if you look at the schools’ bylaws on public participation, there is no permanent trespass rule,” Tarjan said. “The school board can remove somebody following a warning. It doesn't say anything about, you can't come back the next time.”

In an interview with WLRN, Tarjan said it's not clear to him why Freestone was arrested.

“The question is, whatever your political affiliation, are you being removed from the meeting just because of that?” he said.

Board Vice Chair says removal from a meeting is “not an arrestable offense”

School Board Vice Chair Steve Gallon said Freestone didn’t appear to be causing any disruption.

“I did not have any direct conflict or communication issue with him,” Gallon said. “The communication disruption came from several female members of the audience, which were very disruptive at the time, which were inconsistent with the board's policy on decorum.”

Sydney Walsh
Miami Herald
Vice Chair Dr. Steve Gallon III, left, and Board Member Mari Tere Rojas are seen at the Miami-Dade County School Board meeting on July 20, 2022. Parents, students and community members spoke during the meeting regarding health education textbooks titled “Comprehensive Health Skills” for middle and high school students.

Gallon says he doesn’t know what prompted district police to arrest Freestone.

“The directing of individuals to leave the auditorium during the meeting, because of disruptive behavior, is not an arrestable offense, based on my understanding of our policy and procedures,” Gallon said. “What transpired outside I can't speak to because I was not there.”

Freestone tried to attend another school board meeting on July 28, but wasn’t allowed in. A district spokesperson said when Freestone’s ID was being checked at the door, security asked him to step to the side and he didn’t comply.

“I think it’s a clear violation of my rights. It’s disappointing because I want to be there to support the push for sex education in schools,” Freestone told WLRN in an interview outside the building as the meeting continued inside.

When a reporter walked outside to speak to Freestone, he was yelling at some members of Moms for Liberty as they gave press interviews.

Asked what he hoped to accomplish by that, Freestone replied: “Well, at this point I don’t really have anything else to do.”

“I’ve been barred from making public comment and asserting my First Amendment rights so I’ll be productive where I can be,” he said.

Freestone to be arraigned August 15

WLRN reached out to other civil liberties experts about Freestone’s case but they declined to be interviewed for this story.

Tarjan says Freestone’s arrest can have a chilling effect.

“We want the process to be fair. We want members of the public to be able to attend these meetings without fear of being arrested for no good cause,” Tarjan said. “That's the democratic process. And we just want to see that play out.”

The next school board meeting, on Monday August 15, starts 30 minutes after Freestone is scheduled to be arraigned in county court.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter