School Board Battles National Groups

Scarlett Johnson and Amber Schroeder drop off recall petitions to Paula Taebel, filing officer for the Mequon-Thiensville School District on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, in Mequon, Wis. 

PORT WASHINGTON — A Cedarburg-based group that provides a forum for discussion and action on racial issues has filed a defamation lawsuit against a candidate for today’s Mequon-Thiensville School Board special election.

Get daily updates from the News Graphic sent directly to your email inbox.

Bridge the Divide alleges that Scarlett Johnson has made false and damaging statements on social media sites and in podcasts, causing them to lose support and be bombarded with criticism. The group issued a cease and desist letter to Johnson in August, but their attorney says she has not stopped her remarks on social media and podcasts. The lawsuit was filed Friday in Ozaukee County Circuit Court “We only use legal measures as a last resort, but this escalating defamation is serious and we have been forced to respond in a serious manner, by filing a lawsuit,” Bridge the Divide said in a statement released on its website and social media.

Johnson said early Monday afternoon that she had yet to be served with any notice of the lawsuit.

“I haven’t seen a copy of the complaint, but clearly this is a political hit job by an activist group from outside of our district determined to interfere with the MTSD recall election,” she said. “The timing of this lawsuit is meant to maximize political damage, and I know my community will reject this level of dirty politics in a local school board race.”

The claims

The lawsuit claims Johnson has said that Bridge the Divide:

Is a Marxist organization;

Advocates defunding police departments;

Is a left-wing political organization that advocates the teaching of critical race theory in Ozaukee County schools;

Is “funded by the Democratic Party;”

Is a far-left group that openly opposes America’s armed forces, veterans, and police officers, as well as America, the state of Wisconsin and the local community.

According to the lawsuit, all of the statements are false, but they have proven quite damaging to Bridge the Divide, which has maintained a staunchly non-political posture to enable it to reach out to all segments of the community.

The parties

The group was created in October 2018 by Erica Turner and Heidi Wheeler as a way to “bridge the divide” between minority and majority races by having honest discussions about racial issues,” according to the lawsuit. The pair hoped to create a way to advocate for marginalized voices and educate the predominantly white population in their suburb on racial issues.

Johnson is one of four candidates seeking to unseat four members of the Mequon-Thiensville School Board: Wendy Francour, Erik Hollander, Akram Khan and Chris Schultz.

The four belong to Restore MTSD, whose members started organizing last year in opposition to the school district’s COVID-19 protocols, including holding virtual instruction for the first four days of the year, contract tracing and mask requirements. They have also been critical of what they said are declining academic scores and increasing taxes and have advocated for restoring “excellence, engagement and trust.”

Critical race theory

Among the issues they have taken a position on is critical race theory. According to the American Bar Association, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term to describe an evolving process of examining how “the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers.”

The lawsuit says that on July 27, 2021, Johnson appeared on the “Mythinformed MKE” podcast and immediately identified Bridge the Divide as a group that advocated for the teaching of critical race theory in schools.

According to the lawsuit, Bridge the Divide has only two posts on its entire Facebook page that directly mention CRT and neither addresses it being taught in schools.

“There is no reason, other than her own reckless disregard for the truth, that defendant Johnson would have believed Bridge the Divide advocates for critical race theory as a part of school curricula,” the suit says.

Nor have they ever pushed for defunding the police, the suit said. The group, along with the heads of all law enforcement agencies in the county, has hosted panel discussions on race and law enforcement.

Bridge the Divide Executive Director Erica Turner told the News Graphic that she had never heard of nor talked to Johnson before people started showing her posts that Johnson made online criticizing the group. She believes that if Johnson had simply attended an event or contacted her, Johnson could learn what the group is really about.

“Our organization wants to build bridges between racial groups that have not been very good at communicating with each other. We don’t have a political agenda and we don’t have a political affiliation,” Turner said. “Every false statement that says we do cuts us off from some segments of society and cripples our ability to carry out our mission. Some people need witches to burn, to fuel their own public ascent, but why Ms. Johnson picked us to target is beyond me.”

Comments have hurt

According to the lawsuit, the group believes Johnson’s comments have led to decreased turnout at Bridge the Divide events, as well as increased negative attention.

“From the late summer into the fall of 2021, Bridge the Divide began to be bombarded with ridicule and criticism, largely from persons influenced by Ms. Johnson’s false statements,” the suit said. “A number of people have called Bridge the Divide a ‘racist organization.’” Johnson has 45 days to respond to the suit.