As various social media formats and blogs continue to evolve, the definition of free speech may also evolve. That seems to be the case with a former Bucks County, Pennsylvania English teacher who sued her former employer.
The situation began in 2011, when teacher Natalie Munroe began blowing off steam through her personal blog. She routinely made attacks on her students, whom she did not name, in the blog. Using descriptors like “utterly loathsome,” “frightfully dim” and “jerk.”
Before long, links to her blog were being floated around parents and students in Central Bucks School District. Despite receiving positive teacher evaluations in 2008, Munroe found herself being put on a disciplinary work plan because of the furor her blog posts caused. Subsequent evaluations were poor, and Munroe was terminated.
Munroe and her attorney claim that the work plan and the poor evaluations were retaliation for the blog posts. Further, they claimed that the posts should have been protected as free speech under the First Amendment.
A recent decision handed down by U.S. District Judge Cynthia Rufe disagrees with the plaintiff’s assertions. Judge Rufe used a time-tested standard for determining whether or not the blog posts were protected speech. She noted that Munroe was a public employee who may be held to a different standard when disparaging their employer. Ultimately, Judge Rufe said that the blog posts caused a significant disruption at the school and within the district. This disruption made it difficult for the district to carry on its essential function to educate students. Accordingly, Munroe’s blog posts were not protected speech.
Because of the judge’s ruling, this case will not be proceeding to trial. Legal scholars warn that anyone who is employed by a public entity should be exceedingly careful about their social media presence. In most instances, it’s best not to blog or otherwise post comments about a public employer, coworkers or recipients of the services provided by government entities. Doing so may put the blogger’s job in jeopardy, and there is a very good chance that a court will agree that the employer was within their rights.
If you are a California school administrator with a question about student/teacher safety, special education, accommodations, student rights, free speech or discipline, or school employment law, feel free to call attorney Richard Oppenheim at 818-461-8500. There is never a charge for an initial consultation and we can help you choose the best direction to resolve any school district legal issue.