Temple Academy, on West River Road in Waterville, is seeking to renew a protection from harassment order against Tim White, the father of a former student who has been protesting against the school for the past decade.

WATERVILLE — A decade-long dispute between a private Christian school in Waterville and the parent of a former student is back in the courts, as arguments over a new protection from harassment order are raising questions about the line between peaceably protesting and unlawful intimidation.

Tim White, the parent at the center of the dispute, stood up in a district courtroom Monday to speak in his own defense without a lawyer, telling the judge that he was not prepared to reach any agreement with representatives from Temple Academy.

Tim White has been publicly protesting against Temple Academy in Waterville for the past decade. Scott Monroe/Morning Sentinel

White has been continually protesting outside the school and contacting current and former Temple officials over the last decade. Tim White refused to accept the school’s decision to drop him as a volunteer basketball coach over concerns about his anger, and his son, Michael White, was ejected from Temple as a result.

White said before Monday’s court hearing that he will accept nothing less than “a public apology in the paper” from Temple for him to stop his protesting. White, who works as a shipwright at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, also said “there will be a cash settlement,” a demand that has come up previously with the school when he wanted a refund of tuition.

“They need to apologize to us and make the town aware,” White said of Temple. “They ignored what they knew to be wrong. They covered it up. So I poked the bear. I make no regrets about it.”

Alton Stevens, a local lawyer who has represented Temple in the dispute for the past decade, said in an interview that prior protection orders, and the new one currently being sought, aim to bar White from the school property and the area of West River Road surrounding it, whether the school is visible or not. The protection order includes standard language that White would not be allowed “in the vicinity of” the plaintiff’s homes, school or place of business.

Stevens described the case as “extremely unusual.” Asked whether Temple would agree to White’s demand for a public apology and monetary settlement, Stevens said, “I do not believe so.”

“I’ve never seen anybody hold onto something so long as Mr. White,” Stevens said.

During a Waterville District Court hearing Monday at which Temple officials sought the new protection from harassment order against White, the Sanford man asserted that his right to peaceably assemble was at stake. But Temple officials contend that White’s behavior crosses the line into threatening and harassing conduct that has people fearful for their safety.

“To be unable to let go of a grudge for this long and go on with your life, is extremely abnormal,” Temple’s complaint states. “Plaintiffs have every right to view Tim White as unbalanced and capable of violence at any time.”

Attending Monday’s hearing with White was his wife, Katie, and longtime friend Al Sesin, a pastor who works with pastoral staff at Kingdom Life church in Oakland. Attending the hearing with Stevens was Kevin Wood, superintendent of schools for Temple.

Listed as plaintiffs in the protection from harassment order are Wood, Denise LaFountain, the current head of school, and Craig Riportella, pastor of Centerpoint Community Church. (Centerpoint and Temple decided recently to end their 45-year relationship so the school can become independent to better establish itself as a nondenominational Christian institution.)

Judge Charles Dow, who has sat through previous hearings involving the prior protection orders between Temple and White, on Monday pointedly asked White about representing himself in court.

“You assert a Constitutional issue,” Dow said. “It seems to me some lawyer would be interested” in taking White’s case.

White, however, said he cannot afford a lawyer.

Sigmund Schutz, who is the Morning Sentinel’s attorney on issues related to public disclosure laws and specializes in 1st Amendment issues, said generally that any restrictions placed on freedom of speech should be “narrowly tailored to government interests.” He said a protection order that would have the effect of barring someone from protesting on public ways that are off private property is “highly suspect” and “sounds over-broad.”

Stevens, in the complaint seeking a new protection order, cites settled court cases aimed at illustrating that White’s actions of public protests near the school and of sending online messages to people ultimately are in line with the statutory definitions of harassment.

A 2011 landmark U.S. Supreme court case, Snyder v. Phelps, ruled that speech on a matter of public concern occurring on a public street cannot be the legal basis for causing emotional distress, even if the speech is viewed as “offensive” or “outrageous.” The ruling came in response to the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, which was picketing military funerals in a public setting to draw attention to what its members saw as punishment for tolerance of homosexuality.

Whether White’s dispute with Temple can be seen as a matter of public concern, though, may not matter to the district court judge, who is only being asked to find that White’s actions constitute harassment and that another protection order is needed.

White, for his part, cites the Constitutional rights of others — specifically the Westboro Baptist Church case, as well as protests near abortion clinics — as backing up his own right to continue protesting Temple Academy.

“I should have the same Constitutional rights … to stand across the street, to peacefully protest,” White told the judge.

Emma Bond, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the organization couldn’t comment on how legal principles may apply to White’s case but instead released a statement on the general issue at hand.

“The protection from harassment statute serves the important goal of ensuring that people can go about their lives without being subject to harassment and intimidation,” Bond said in the statement. “However, preventing harassment does not require unnecessarily restricting free speech. Courts must be careful to ensure that any order does not punish or restrict expression that is protected under the First Amendment.”

 

THE ORIGINAL DISPUTE

White’s dispute with Temple has been going on for the past decade, arising out of what the school’s attorney described in court documents as “a rather insignificant event.”

While his son, Michael, attended the Christian school, White served as a volunteer basketball coach as part of the school’s requirement that parents volunteer their time. By 2009, though, the school said its athletic director told White he wanted to appoint a different person and that he had received complaints that White “sometimes had trouble controlling his anger.”

But White, according to the school, refused to accept the decision and angrily persisted in appealing to school officials and ultimately the school board, all of which upheld the athletic director’s call.

In response, the school board on Feb. 2, 2010, sent a letter to White “asking him to withdraw his son from the school,” according to court documents filed by the school. Temple cited a portion of a contract parents sign “essentially stating that, in the event he/she can no longer support the decision of the administration, and all avenues of communication have been exhausted, the parent(s) will withdraw their child from the school.”

Temple contends that Michael wasn’t “expelled” but rather “ejected” under terms of the school’s contract, finding that Tim White would plainly not support the administration’s decision-making and instead became more agitated in continuing to appeal his removal as coach.

Michael White, who is now 28 years old and living in Wiscasset, said in a phone interview this week that he remains upset about the way the school handled the situation. He recalled being a junior at Temple and living in the Somerset County town of Embden at the time when he received the school’s letter, and he recalls going to school with an empty bag to clean out his locker.

“I think it was around lunch, they gathered everybody, 8th-12th grade, and we got in the same room, and I sat in front of the class and they told everybody I was expelled,” Michael White said.

“It’s the way they went about it. I am 100% on board that if you agree to something, that’s the way it should be done. I don’t think they (his parents) knowingly signed (the contract) thinking this is how my son’s going to leave the school,” he said. “I never did anything that would warrant the kind of treatment that I received.”

But was it child abuse, as his father has contended when protesting against the school?

“Yes, I think it was abusive the way they went about expelling me and the timeframe it was all taking place,” Michael White said. “They were treating me much differently than they had before when my dad was still coach.”

Michael White went on to graduate from Carrabec High School in Anson in 2011. He joined the Army and served with the 82nd Engineer Company, working security detail in Afghanistan in 2013. He currently works in construction as a heavy equipment operator.

 

10 YEARS OF PROTEST

White contacted media outlets soon after his son was ejected from Temple Academy. In court documents, Temple states that on Feb. 22, 2010, White called the then-principal “in a hostile manner” and “made a number of demands, including a threat that if he was not paid a certain sum of money he would go to the media.”

The Bangor Daily News reported on the dispute just over a month after the falling-out between Temple and the Whites that included an interview with LaFountain, Temple’s administrator at the time, who said Michael White’s “ejection wasn’t because of his own actions, though his behavior in school was a factor.”

“White has served ‘detention after detention’ because of incidents ranging from hiding a teacher’s car keys to climbing on top of a soft drink machine, she said,” the newspaper quoted her as saying. “They weren’t serious problems, said LaFountain, but the school needed ‘100 percent cooperation from the family’ in order to correct Michael White’s behavior.”

Tim White contends that the school in effect unjustly expelled his son, and he also accuses the school of calling an assembly to announce the decision and of sharing his son’s school records with the Bangor Daily News for a story about the dispute. Temple has asserted in prior complaints that White’s description of the school furnishing his son’s records and the description of the school assembly are both false.

Stevens said there “may have been an assembly, but Temple says they didn’t tell everyone they were kicking out Michael White.” The Bangor newspaper’s story makes no mention of the paper being in possession of student records but rather reports comments from LaFountain about Michael White’s behavior at school to illustrate that there were prior concerns with his conduct at school.

What’s clear is that the fallout during the winter of 2010 triggered years of protest and criticism from Tim White, who the school says also took to social media to disparage Temple and its staff. Temple, in turn, sought and received multiple protection from harassment orders against White, resulting sometimes in police being called when White showed up in person near the school holding a sign.

“This matter has been going on, literally, for more than 10 years,” Temple’s complaint against White states.

White “was quiet” for a time following an extension of a prior protection order more than two years ago, the complaint states, but that changed on Sept. 2, 2018, when White again protested across the street. On Oct. 14, White trespassed on Temple property, the complaint says, resulting in Waterville police being called and issuing him a no-trespassing notice.

White went quiet again, the complaint states, until Feb. 24 this year, when LaFountain’s husband received an online message from White, who said he would be retiring soon and have “more time” to “keep protesting.” And he referred to LaFountain as “your child abusing wife,” the complaint states.

The complaint notes that harassment under a protection order constitutes three or more acts of harassing or intimidating behavior.

On March 4, White stood across the street from the school with a sign that read “Child Abuse” and pointed to Temple, the complaint states.

“As one of Temple’s teachers parked his car and headed to the school, Tim White shouted ‘child abuse is not Godly.’ One of the students in second grade saw Mr. White through the window, claimed that he was pointing a finger at him/her and communicated to the teacher that he/she was afraid that ‘he might come get us,'” the complaint states. “Plaintiffs have every reason to be concerned/afraid and to feel threatened. The incident that gave rise to Tim White’s crusade took place over 10 years ago.

“… The cases interpreting the harassment statute make clear that the above acts, especially in the context of the past, constitute harassment.”

Michael White said he has joined his father to protest outside Temple on at least two occasions, saying he supports his father’s efforts. “I admire his tenacity,” he said. “I think what he’s done, his commitment to it, that says a fair amount about his follow-through.”

 

COURT CASE CONTINUES 

During Monday’s hearing, White said he planned to later introduce as evidence a letter written recently by state Sen. Robert Foley, R-York, who met with White in 2014 and learned of the family’s dispute with Temple. White at the time shared with Foley the Bangor Daily News story from 2010.

Foley, in his July 9, 2020, letter to the court, said those disclosures by LaFountain to the newspaper are what prompted him to submit legislation, L.D. 59, “which would follow Maine’s public-school law regarding the privacy of any and all personal records the school had on any student.”

“This law did not apply to private schools although many throughout the state recognized and abided by the law, but some did not,” Foley wrote. “My bill would require all private schools to comply with the law.”

The bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Paul LePage, but the veto was overridden by the Legislature on May 21, 2015, and became law.

Attorney Stevens agreed to waive calling the letter hearsay, thereby avoiding the need to subpoena Foley to testify in court and allowing the letter to be entered into evidence.

White, who described himself as a born-again Christian, also on Monday called Sesin to the stand as a character witness who he met in the 1980s. White began asking Sesin whether he was involved in a separate and prior dispute involving Assemblies of God in which they made “accusations of my character.”

“I have been personally slandered and maligned by Assemblies of God churches before,” White told the court.

Stevens objected to the line of questioning as being irrelevant, and judge Dow agreed it was “not relevant to what the court needs to find.”

“Have you ever known me to be a violent man, attacking anybody?” White asked as a follow-up.

“No, not to my knowledge,” Sesin said.

And with that, Sesin concluded his testimony after being on the stand for just a few minutes.

After taking the brief testimony, Dow set a follow-up hearing date of Tuesday, Aug. 25, with the case to be decided by all evidence introduced by 4 p.m. that day. Stevens said he would have witnesses available for the next hearing.

Meanwhile, Michael White said he would like to put the matter behind him and would like an apology from Temple. But unlike his father, he doesn’t need it to be made in public; an in-person visit, face to face, would be enough, he said.

“We’ll move on as soon as they do what’s right,” he said. “They refuse to acknowledge what they’ve done is wrong. So why should we refuse to keep bringing it up? If they want it to be over with, all they have to do is meet with us and work it out.”

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