Public employees should enjoy a strong dose of personal freedom to express themselves on political and social issues online. However, a recent example from Nashville, Tennessee, shows quite well that there are limits to free-speech protection for public employees who cross certain boundaries and denigrate those with whom they work with on a daily basis.
NewsChannel 5 reported last week that a teacher from East Magnet High School resigned after her students confronted her about some of her Twitter posts.
Apparently, the teacher posted things, such as:
“I take fashion advice from my students. If they wear it, I don’t.”
“The ghettoness of some of my students just sickens me beyond belief.”
These derogatory posts have no place in the educational system. Teachers are supposed to help and encourage their students, not lampoon or denigrate them. As I explained in an earlier piece, “If a public school teacher denigrates her students or colleagues, the school could argue that the speech will damage day-to-day working relationships — a key factor in courts’ legal analyses.”
Generally, when public school teachers have blasted theirs kids or colleagues online, they have not fared well. For example, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Munroe v. Central Bucks School District (2015) ruled against a Pennsylvania teacher who was discharged after negative blogs about her students and their parents. The appeals court explained: “We find that [the teacher’s] various expressions of hostility against her students would disrupt her duties as a high school teacher and the functioning of the School District.”
The Nashville teacher acknowledged the “stupidity” of her comments, apologize, and resigned. Perhaps it was a lesson learned.
Hopefully, on National Teachers’ Day, other teachers will tread lightly before posting negative comments about their students online.
–David L. Hudson, Jr. is the author of Let the Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Freedom of Expression in American Schools and Teen Legal Rights (3rd Edition).