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Court Rules School District Did Not Violate Teacher’s First Amendment Rights by Demoting Her Over Blog Comments

K-12 Education Publications

The Ninth Circuit Federal Appeals Court recently ruled in Richerson v. Beckon that a Washington State school district did not violate a teacher’s First Amendment Rights when it demoted her for making highly personal and harshly critical comments about her co-workers, the union, and the School District on a publicly available blog. 

After initially discovering the blog comments, which harshly criticized one of her co-workers and referred to him as “white boy,” the School District gave the employee a verbal and written reprimand for her “breach of the expectations of confidentiality and the professional standards and practices of the district.” Later, after discovering her additional blog comments about the union representative, that included references to “Hitler’s moustache,” the District involuntarily reassigned her from her duties as a curriculum specialist and instructional coach into a classroom teaching position. 

The teacher subsequently sued the Director of Human Resources of the School District, alleging that she was unconstitutionally transferred in retaliation for her exercise of her First Amendment rights through her blog. The District Court held that her speech was not constitutionally protected, and the federal appeals court affirmed the lower court’s decision.

Although an employee’s speech may be constitutionally protected if it addresses matters of “public concern,” the court stated that merely touching on matters of public concern is, by itself, an insufficient factor to establish constitutional protection. Focusing on the deleterious effects that her speech had on her relationship with her co-workers, the court held that the District’s decision to transfer her on the grounds that her blog “fatally undermined her ability to enter into trusting relationships as an instructional coach” was not a constitutional violation. While her former positions required her to enter into trusting and confidential mentor relationships with other teachers, the court found that, as a result of her comments, few teachers would expect that they could enter into a confidential and trusting relationship with her, noting that several individuals even refused to work with her as a result of her comments. Because one could reasonably predict that her speech would “disrupt co-worker relations, erode a close working relationship premised on personal loyalty and confidentiality, and interfere with her performance of her duties,” the court held that the School District’s legitimate administrative interests outweighed the teacher’s First Amendment interests in not being transferred because of her speech.

Although the court’s opinion is non-precedential, and thus is not binding on the lower courts in that jurisdiction, it is nevertheless an important case for school districts throughout the country faced with similar problems regarding employee speech.