A Georgia-based superintendent and county board chairperson were entitled to immunity from a First Amendment lawsuit filed by a teacher who was suspended for five days for a controversial social media post. The decision shows that public school teachers must be careful in posting controversial public comments on social media.
Kelly H. Tucker, a middle school teacher from the Tift County Public School System, posted a comment on Facebook after listening to a radio discussion about a Christmas parade in Tifton, Georgia, that included “Black Lives Matters” protestors.
Tucker posted on Facebook:
It’s turned into a race matter. What about the thugs that beat the father in his vehicle because he didn’t slow down. . . . TAKE THE HOOD OFF YOUR HEAD, AND PULL UP YOUR DAMN PANTS, AND QUIT IMPREGNATING EVERYBODY. …
Tucker’s comment went viral and school officials received complaints from a school board member, a high school student, and a county commissioner. Patrick Atwater, Jr., the Supertintendent of Tift County Public Schools, and Kim Rutland, the Chairperson of the Tift County Board of Education, disciplined Tucker.
Atwater initially disciplined Tucker with a ten-day suspension for “a lack of professional judgment” and required her to attend diversity training. The school board held a hearing and imposed a five-day suspension and required Tucker to attend diversity training.
Tucker then filed a First Amendment lawsuit in state court, contending that Atwater and Rutland violated her First Amendment, free-speech rights. Atwater and Rutland filed a motion to dismiss, arguing they were entitled to qualified immunity. A trial court denied the motion.
Atwater and Rutland then appealed to the Court of Appeals of Georgia. On October 24, 2017, the Georgia appeals court granted qualified immunity to the defendants in Atwater v. Tucker. https://efast.gaappeals.us/download?filingId=d8afe2ce-4754-4800-81c9-6e2c7b43e7d8 The appeals court granted qualified immunity, reasoning that the defendants did not violate clearly established constitutional law.
Public employees, including public school teachers, retain some free-speech rights even though they work for the government. They have the right to speak out as citizens on matters of public concern. However, their free-speech rights can be trumped by the public employer’s right to maintain a disruptive-free workplace.
The Georgia appeals court reasoned that Tucker’s Facebook post was disruptive to the school environment. “Here, there was evidence … that Tucker’s post interfered with the operation of the middle school where she taught,” the appeals court wrote.
The court’s decision shows that public employees can face discipline for their speech on social media.