Thursday, October 21, 2010

Teachers have no First Amendment rights while engaged in "official duties" in classroom, U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals rules

Teachers do not have a First Amendment right to "to select books and methods of instruction for use in the classroom without interference from public officials," the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today in Evans-Marshall v. Bd of Educ of Tipp City Sch Dist.

In that case, the teacher had a contract to teach English to 9th and 11th grade students and a creative writing course to 11th and 12th grade students. At the beginning of the fall semester, the teacher assigned Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to her 9th graders. To the end, in exploring the book’s theme of government censorship, she distributed a list compiled by the American Library Association of the “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books.”

Students divided into groups, and the teacher asked each group to pick a book from
the list, to investigate the reasons why the book was challenged and to lead an in-class debate about the book. Two groups chose Heather Has Two Mommies by Lesléa

A parent complained about Heather Has Two Mommies, and the principal,
asked the teacher to tell the students to choose a different book. She
complied, explaining to her class that “they were in a unique position to . . . use this experience as source material for their debate because they were in the . . . position of having actually experienced censorship in preparing to debate censorship.” After the class completed the Fahrenheit 451 unit, Evans-Marshall assigned Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse and used it as the basis for in-class discussions about “spirituality, Buddhism, romantic relationships, personal growth, [and] familial relationships.”

Thereafter, at two school board meetings, the teacher was criticized by parents for her choice of books and for her teaching methods, even though the books had been bought by the District several years earlier and had been on the school district's list of optional reading. While a few members of the school board called for understanding and non-censorship, it seemed most parents were against the teacher's book choices.

Thereafter, the principal discovered that the teacher had dissiminated to a few of her students examples of a creative writing assignment, one of which dealt with rape, and the other with a murdered priest. From there on, the relationship between the principal and the teacher spiraled downward. Indeed, the principal soon after gave the teacher a poor review and she was subsequently non-renewed by the board of education.

She then filed suit in federal court, claiming retaliation in violation of her First Amendment right to free speech.

In analyzing her claims, the 6th Circuit employed a three part analysis. It began by asking whether the teacher's statements were those made on "matters of public concern." Connick v. Myers. Then, it asked, if the matter was one of public imporance, If the employee establishes that her speech touches “matters of public concern,” a balancing test determines whether the employee or the employer wins. Pickering v. Board of Education. Then, if the employee wins the balancing test, the court had to ask itself whether or not the public employees statements were made pursuant to their official duties. Garcetti v. Ceballos. If they were, the employees were not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.

Here, the Court found that while the matters did touch those of public concern (public school curriculum) and that the teacher's interest in free speech trumped the school district's, the teacher's statements were made pursuant to her official duties as a teacher, not as a citizen. Thus, the teacher's statements and actions were not protected under the First Amendment and the school district was able to terminate her employment.

The Sixth Circuit's decision today further restricts what teachers and administrators may say while they are "on the clock" and in their formal role they were hired to perform.

The Court was also quick to point out that the decision applies only to public primary and secondary schools and not necessarily in a college or university environment.

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