Free speech for teachers gets boost

When an English teacher tweeted to President Trump that her Texas high school was filled with students in this country illegally and urged his help, she was fired (“Teacher Wins Appeal After Being Fired Over Immigrant Tweet,” The New York Times, Dec. 1).  Her appeal to the state education commissioner resulted in her reinstatement.

Nevertheless, the Fort Worth Independent School District intends to fight the ruling, claiming that it was based on a technicality.  I doubt it will prevail because in 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Pickering v. Board of Education that statements by public school teachers about issues of public importance are protected speech.  In my opinion, illegal immigration clearly meets that standard regardless of the Board members’ individual views on the matter.

The only way the district will prevail is if it can prove that the teacher spoke as part of her public duties.  In Garcetti v. Ceballos, the high court ruled that statements by public employees pursuant to their employment have no First Amendment protection.,

Regardless of the outcome, it’s still risky for teachers to express themselves openly about matters of grave importance.  That’s because freedom of speech does not exist in K-12 in the same way that it exists in higher education.

(To post comment, click on the title of this blog.)

2 Replies to “Free speech for teachers gets boost”

  1. Discharging the teacher for her tweets is definitely a violation of her First Amendment rights. Per the NYT article, the district also alleged that the teacher made inappropriate statements to students while she was teaching. The state agency found that the evidence did not support the district’s inappropriate-statements allegations — apparently finding that the students who gave evidence re the statements were not credible.

    Cannot tell from the NYT article what the procedures were before the state agency. If there was a hearing with an ALJ who made credibility determinations and the ALJ discredited the students’ testimony, then the state agency’s credibility decision is solid. If there was no hearing and/or no credibility determination by a decision-maker who actually heard the live testimony, then the state agency’s credibility decision could be overturned on appeal.

    Seems like the district should have relied exclusively on the alleged inappropriate statements to students if it wanted to discharge the teacher. Relying, even in part, on the tweets, was a sure loser on First Amendment grounds. By mixing the sure-loser tweet grounds for discharge with the possible winner inappropriate-in-class-statements grounds for discharge, the district screwed up legally and tactically.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: The only way the district can possibly prevail is if it can prove the teacher’s comments were made pursuant to her duties as a teacher. Garcetti v. Ceballos made it clear that such comments had no First Amendment protection. I hope the district pursues its suit in order to clarify what teachers are allowed to say without losing their job.

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