PITTSBURGH — A mother of two who swore at a school board because she didn’t think members were doing enough to address her concerns about bullying has been found not guilty of disorderly conduct.
Johanna Boratko, 41, appealed her conviction stemming from a Greater Johnstown School Board meeting in March. She acknowledges swearing as she stormed out of the meeting but had argued the frustrated utterance — the f-word followed by another crude term applied to the board as a group — was protected First Amendment speech.
A Cambria County judge who heard her appeal of the summary offense, which is similar to a traffic ticket, agreed.
Although Boratko’s language was “inappropriate” and “probably offensive,” authorities didn’t prove she “intended to cause ‘inconvenience, annoyance or alarm’ as required by the statute,” Senior Judge F. Joseph Leahey wrote. The judge also said using the f-word isn’t “obscene” under the statute unless it’s used in a sexual context.
Defense attorney Timothy Burns said Boratko was gratified by the ruling.
“We’re not looking for the right to use profanity, but we want people to be comfortable in what they say to a school board or public officials,” Burns said.
Board President Richard Unger previously said the school board planned to abide by the judge’s ruling and use it to determine how to conduct meetings in the future.
School Superintendent James Cekada said Friday in an emailed statement that the school respected the judge’s ruling.
“Our core purpose is to create a thriving community tomorrow by investing in every child’s success today,” Cekada said.
Boratko and her husband first raised concerns in February that their two sons were being bullied at the district’s middle school. Boratko contends one son was so upset he began cutting himself, and she told reporters seven to 10 students had been picking on him for three years and telling him “he should just die.”
Burns said Friday that it appears the board is addressing those concerns pro-actively, including using a video about bullying and suicide.
Boratko has said she “just lost it” when she went back to the board in March and was made to sit through “2½ hours of a dog-and-pony show” that wasn’t addressing her concerns.
Boratko had been ordered to pay more than $250 in court costs, but that money will now be refunded because she won the appeal.
Two other citizens, including a former school support staff employee who defended Boratko at the March meeting, have sued the district, saying its “public comment” rules are used to stifle debate and free speech. That lawsuit is still pending.
“We want our people to be respectful to public officials, but at the same time we don’t want public officials intimidating people and limiting what they can say at public meetings,” Burns said.