Alex Barnett (left) and Colburn Clark

A University of Central Arkansas student originally sentenced to jail for a nonviolent protest during a Conway School Board meeting will serve community service instead as part of a negotiated plea on appeal, a Faulkner County circuit judge has ruled.

Circuit Judge H.G. Foster suspended the 10-day jail sentence of UCA student James Alexander “Alex” Barnett, as long as he serves 100 hours of community work service within six months. Barnett also must pay $250 in fines and court costs within that time under Foster’s order, which was signed Friday and posted online today.

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Barnett was originally tried in Faulkner County District Court, where he was convicted of criminal trespass and failure to disperse, both Class C misdemeanors. Though Class C misdemeanors are the least serious criminal offenses, District Judge Chris Carnahan handed down an unusually tough sentence: 10 days in jail. Barnett ended up spending about a day in jail before advising authorities he would appeal.

As part of the negotiated plea, Barnett pleaded guilty to failure to disperse, and Foster dismissed the criminal trespass charge. You can read the judge’s decision here.

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Defense attorney David Hogue said today that Foster’s ruling “is a much more reasonable consequence for what actually happened. That’s why we accepted this” plea agreement.

Barnett was among about 30 nonviolent protesters who carried signs and chanted “Trans Lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter” outside a Conway School Board meeting in November 2022. The protest came in response to October 2022 board actions targeting transgender students and adults and its apparent lack of concern about a man at a school board meeting who said the LGBQT+ community deserved death. The board allowed the man to keep talking.

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The ruling by Carnahan, a former executive director of the Arkansas Republican Party, was so harsh that it drew national attention.  Carnahan, who ran unsuccessfully for the state Supreme Court, is now seeking re-election to district court. He is being challenged by Evan David Hogue, whose mother is Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Karen Baker. (Evan David Hogue is not related to David Hogue.)

ProPublica wrote an in-depth story last year about the tough sentence and policing during and after the board meeting as part of a series about culture war disputes disrupting local school boards across the nation.

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Keylen Montebreshon Botley, then 18, of Little Rock pleaded guilty in December to the same misdemeanors as Barnett and was fined but got no jail time. A key factor was that she had a different judge.

Carnahan sentenced the remaining defendant, Colburn Clark, to three days in jail and ordered him to pay $650 in fines and fees. Clark also has appealed and has a pretrial hearing set for May 28 in circuit court and a jury trial May 29.

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