Fact Check: American Principles Project – Claim linking Protasiewicz to school policy for trans students widely misses mark
As Wisconsin’s April 4, 2023 election nears, the spotlight is firmly fixed on the state Supreme Court race.
Conservative Daniel Kelly, a former state Supreme Court justice, will take on liberal Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz in a matchup that has turned into the most expensive judicial race in U.S. history.
If Kelly wins, the court will maintain its conservative majority. If Protasiewicz wins, liberal justices will have the majority. And with the court set to rule on several major issues – including Wisconsin’s abortion ban and legislative maps, as well as the rules for voting in the 2024 presidential election – both sides are fighting hard to gain ground.
In recent weeks, conservative groups supporting Kelly have attempted to link Protasiewicz to a popular issue currently firing up their base nationwide: the treatment of transgender youth.
A dramatic video ad from the conservative American Principles Project PAC, which on its website bills itself as “America’s top defender of the family,” is one such example.
The ad references a 2021 lawsuit against the Kettle Moraine School District over a policy that allowed students to change their names and pronouns at school without notifying their parents.
The ad describes the heart of the lawsuit as “an innocent 12-year-old girl (who) was transitioned into a boy by school officials without parental consent.”
Such actions are “insanity,” the voice in the ad says, and “Janet Protasiewicz supports it.”
Similar anti-trans rhetoric appeared in a text message blast to Wisconsin voters, urging them to support Kelly.
But we’ll focus on this video ad, which is far off-base.
Let’s dig in.
Ad imagery misleads about what is described in lawsuit
The lawsuit was filed Nov. 17, 2021 in Waukesha County Circuit Court by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and the Alliance Defending Freedom. It alleges that the Kettle Moraine School District’s policy violates the constitutional rights of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children.
Court documents say that the student “expressed to her parents and school staff that she wanted to adopt a new male name and use male pronouns” at school. Though the parents said it should not happen, they were told that “school staff would refer to her using whatever name and pronouns she wanted while at school.”
After the parents pulled the student out of school, “she changed her mind … deciding instead that she wanted to continue using her birth name and female pronouns,” according to the documents. A summary judgment hearing is scheduled for April 19, 2023.
The language in the ad – that an innocent girl was transitioned into a boy by school officials – gives the distorted impression that school staff were the ones driving this change and were solely responsible for it.
In actuality, they were responding to a request from the student to do so. Research shows that using chosen names and pronouns reduces the risk of depression and suicide in trans youth.
What’s more, it appears from the court documents that the parents pulled the student out of school before any school staff could use the different name and pronouns – making it impossible that the student actually was “transitioned into a boy by school officials” as the ad asserts.
On Jan. 18, 2021, “two days before their daughter was going to return to school,” the parents requested a conversation with school staff about the name and pronoun changes.
On Jan. 19, 2021, school staff called the parents, who expressed that the student should be referred to by legal name and with female pronouns. Staff asked the parents “to wait an extra day before sending her back to school” so they could consult district policy.
On Jan. 20, 2021, the school principal told the parents that they’d use the student’s preferred name and pronouns.
According to court documents, “in light of this policy, and to avoid daily affirmation of this new identity by teachers and staff, the (parents) felt they had no choice but to immediately withdraw their daughter from the Kettle Moraine Middle School.”
The video also shows images of a person with bandages over their chest, suggesting they have undergone top surgery – a medical procedure that removes or augments breast tissue and reshapes the chest to create a more masculine or feminine physical appearance.
It’s immensely misleading to pair with the incident, since the student had asked for a name and pronoun change, not any physical changes typically associated with medically transitioning.
Does Protasiewicz ‘support this’?
In response to a request for evidence of the claim’s accuracy, American Principles Project PAC executive director Terry Schilling responded by tweeting out that that they do not consider PolitiFact to be a legitimate fact-checking organization.
The video does not include any footnotes linking to citation of the claim, as some other political advertisements do.
It’s not apparent that Protasiewicz has ever commented publicly on this lawsuit, which she’d be unlikely to face if elected to the bench unless the upcoming ruling is challenged in both local and appellate courts and the state Supreme Court decides to hear it.
An earlier video ad from the PAC, which contains the same rhetoric blasting schools for policies about transgender students, says that “the extreme groups endorsing Janet Protasiewicz aim to take away parental rights and impose trans ideology on our kids,” though it doesn’t specify which groups.
Many of the organizations that have endorsed Protasiewicz are union groups, voter advocacy groups and abortion rights supporters. She did receive an endorsement from the Human Rights Campaign PAC, an LGBTQ rights organization.
But it’s a mangled view of their mission – which is to “ensure that all LGBTQ+ people, and particularly those of us who are trans, people of color and HIV+, are treated as full and equal citizens” – to assert that they want to “impose trans ideology” on kids.
Sam Roecker, a spokesperson for Protasiewicz, wrote that “these claims aren’t based in reality and don’t reflect positions Judge Protasiewicz has taken in this campaign.”
The American Principles Project PAC ad claims that “an innocent 12-year-old girl was transitioned into a boy by school officials without parental consent … and Janet Protasiewicz supports it.”
The ad distorts the incident itself, both in its language and accompanying imagery.
And there’s no evidence that Protasiewicz supports what happened.
The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim. We rate it Pants on Fire.