Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Sometimes the Court Uses Common Sense and Gets it Right

We all know that teachers can get a little cynical about their students from time to time. It’s a hard job, even in the best of districts. But, can a teacher talk trash about their students, job and school on the internet and then claim that the comments are protected speech? 

That’s what happened with Natalie Munroe and Central Bucks School District in Pennsylvania, where she worked. 

Shortly after Munroe achieved tenure, she created a blog, entitled Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket? on which she posted all kinds of personal musings and information, like recipes, updates on her children and film preferences. She wrote under the name Natalie M. and between August 2009 and November 2010 she wrote about 84 posts, most of which, according to her, had nothing to do with the school or her students. 

The blog posts that she wrote about her students and the school were sometimes doozies For example: Munroe complained about the rudeness and lack of motivation among her students, referring to them as “jerk,” “rat-like,” “dunderhead,” “whiny, simpering grade-grubber with an unrealistically high perception of own ability level” and “frightfully dim.” She also wrote that parents were “breeding a disgusting brood of insolent, unappreciative, selfish brats.”

Munroe did not use her full name, never identified the school at which she worked and only had less than 10 actual subscribers. Nevertheless, students, parents and the local media became aware of the blog and eventually identified Munroe as well as many of the students to which Munroe specifically referred in her posts. Members of the community reacted with outrage, with many calling the district office and appearing at board meetings to register their complaints over a several month period. Additionally, a number of parents requested to exercise their option provided under the No Child Left Behind Act to request a transfer of their children to avoid assignment to Munroe’s class.  General disturbance in the district as a result of the blog ensued for quite some time. 

The district ultimately discharged Munroe for general poor performance reasons and she filed suit claiming that she was discharged in retaliation for exercising her right to free speech in her blog posts.  The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the school district, holding again that public employees do not have an unfettered right to free speech. 

The district court held that a public employee's speech is protected when he or she (1) speaks as a private citizen upon (2) a matter of public concern, and (3) the employee's interest in exercising his or her First Amendment rights is greater than the employer's interest in the efficient operation of the public agency. Although each instance of allegedly protected speech should be considered individually, a court must examine the “content, form, and context of a given statement, as revealed by the whole record” to determine whether it relates “to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community.” Even if otherwise protected by the Constitution, a plaintiff's interest in exercising his or her First Amendment rights “must outweigh the employer's interest in the effective operations of its public services.

The school district in this case was able to show the prolonged disturbance in operations as a result of Munroe’s statements, including diminished trust as evidenced by the number of parents who sought to transfer their children to other schools. Additionally, Munroe failed to persuade the court that her posts were on matters of public concern. Although she occasionally posted information and opinion on the educational system in general as well as criticism of the school district’s administration, the blog posts themselves were largely about her personal life and how she felt personally as opposed to conveying information helpful to the public in general.

Many would say that on a factual basis the court correctly ruled in favor of the school district’s actions since the blog posts seem to evidence a teacher who didn’t really respect students or even like her job much. Overall, this case again is a reminder for employers that a strong social media policy which sets appropriate boundaries for employees is invaluable. While certainly judged on a case by case basis, public employees simply do not have the right to say or write things of personal concern that interfere with the operations of the agency.