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Vocal resident banned from all Baldwin-Whitehall district property

| Wednesday, April 16, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Randy Jarosz | For The South Hills Record
Tom Barchfeld stands near his car at his Whitehall residence. Barchfeld was recently banned from the Baldwin Whitehall School Board meetings.
Tom Barchfeld

Tom Barchfeld stood at the microphone, wearing a neatly pressed black suit.

Speaking once again in a monotone voice, the Whitehall man, 58, questioned school board leaders about their actions. This time he talked about budgets and then referenced a teacher who refused to read a petition he brought to her home.

“I want her fired,” Barchfeld said, as he asked for answers.

Baldwin-Whitehall School District Board President Larry Pantuso reminded Barchfeld to talk about current school district issues and when the man refused he was escorted from the room by a state constable.

“I want an answer to my question,” Barchfeld said on April 2, as he exited the board meeting room for what could have been the last time.

Barchfeld, an elected member of the Whitehall Republican Executive Committee, boldly and persistently expresses his views. He attends school board meetings and shares his views, stands on the side of highways with large signs expressing his dislike of President Obama and visits district offices filing right-to-know requests and seeking meetings with the superintendent.

His actions have prompted school district leaders to call the police on him, have him kicked out of a school board meeting and now, ban him from district property. If he goes onto the property, police could charge him with criminal or defiant trespass.

Barchfeld said he plans to seek legal help, including the assistance of Washington D.C.-based American Center for Law and Justice.

Barchfeld received a letter from district solicitor Bruce Dice on April 8, alerting him that he was prohibited from entering “any of the public buildings occupied by the Baldwin-Whitehall School District” or trespassing on any district grounds, the letter, sent by certified mail, stated.

“You continue to make disparaging and disrespectful comments both at the board meetings and to the administration. The board of school directors of Baldwin-Whitehall School District has instructed me to advise you that they deem this activity harmful to the district and its ability to effectively run said school district,” the letter said.

Dice did not return calls seeking comment. Superintendent Randal Lutz declined comment.

Barchfeld said he doesn't understand how a public school district can ban a resident from district property, which includes the old Wallace School building where the Baldwin Borough public library is located. Polling locations also are held at the schools, and the ban likely would keep him away from campaigning, said Barchfeld, who failed in an attempt to run for school board in 2011.

“Who is the owner of the school district?” said Barchfeld, who is a member of Patriot and 912 groups.

“The school board members are not.”

Just because a property is publicly owned does not stop a person from being banned, said Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. Yet, the person must meet specific criteria, like creating a threat, to be banned, he said.

Barchfeld said he doesn't back down from board members because, “I believe in my First Amendment rights.”

The retired computer assistant for the U.S. Navy admits to having heated exchanges with one board member.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the ban from district property likely would not hold up in court.

“There's certainly no excuse for acting inappropriately. That being said, there are constitutional rights at play here,” Melewsky said.

“Their letter is very general, when the law is actually quite specific,” Melewsky said. “It sounds like they may have underestimated the public's rights and overestimated their own power.”

Barchfeld who often stands at the corner of Route 51 and Glen Elm Drive holding signs that state “Honk 2 Impeach” and “Impeach Obama” said he believes the district has banned him to “shut me up.”

Andrew Sakmar, chairman of the Whitehall Republican Executive Committee, described Barchfeld as subdued at committee meetings.

Sakmar said Baldwin-Whitehall leaders are singling Barchfeld out and that others who frequent meetings and object to what the board is saying should pay attention.

“They don't want him to voice his opinion,” Sakmar said.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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