Teacher's Blog Comments Are not Protected Speech
(CN) - A Pensylvania school district will not face constitutional claims from a teacher who blogged that her students were "frightfully dim" and "selfish brats," a federal judge ruled.
Natalie Munroe sued the Central Bucks School District and two officials in 2012, six years after she began teaching English at the district's Central Bucks East High School in Doylestown, Pa.
For years, Munroe received positive performance evaluations she received tenure from the district in 2010. However, she says, things changed the following year, when the school discovered a blog penned by "Natalie M" called Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?
In the 84 blog posts Munroe published between 2009 and 2010, she mostly wrote about personal matters, but sometimes she blogged about her students, without using names or specific dates, or disclosing where she worked or lived.
Munroe referred to students as "jerk," "rat-like," "dunderhead," "whiny, simpering grade-grubber with an unrealistically high perception of own ability level," and "frightfully dim."
She added that parents were "breeding a disgusting brood of insolent, unappreciative, selfish brats," referred to a co-worker by first name with a vulgar epithet, and complained that the school administration harassed a supposedly ineffective teacher until he resigned.
Munroe claims that the blog had no more than seven subscribers besides her and her husband for most of its history. The administration found about it when a reporter from a local newspaper, The Intelligencer, requested comment on posts "students apparently have been circulating [the blog] on [F]acebook and through other social media."
The next day, Principal Abram Lucabaugh confronted Munroe with printed copies of the blog and placed her on immediate, unpaid suspension, and made a statement to the press.
The Huffington Post, CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, Fox News, Reuters, the Associated Press, and the Philadelphia Inquirer soon picked up the story, and Munroe defended her views in several televised interviews, insisting that she had been unfairly disciplined.
After Munroe went on planned maternity leave from March 1, until the end of the semester, Lucabaugh evaluated Munroe as "unsatisfactory," and Superintendent N. Robert Laws submitted an "Educator Misconduct Complaint" to the state, though it declined to take action.
The district refused to let Munroe transfer to another school, and made her complete detailed lesson plans, which she felt were deliberately made too difficult to fully complete.
Munroe was fired on June 26, 2012, and later sued the district for allegedly retaliating against her for exercising her First Amendment rights.
U.S. District Judge Cynthia Rufe awarded the defendants summary judgment in Philadelphia Friday, finding that the "defendants were within their rights to conclude that the blog posts would erode the necessary trust and respect between Munroe and her students."
The district did not violate Munroe's constitutional right to free expression, as her blog "contains gratuitously demeaning and insulting language inextricably intertwined with her occasional discussions of public issues," according to the ruling.
Even Munroe's media interviews "fanned the flames of controversy," Rufe wrote.
"Education is one of the most heavily protected public interests in modern American jurisprudence," the judge added. "At the same time, free speech is 'the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.' In this case, plaintiff's speech, in both effect and tone, was sufficiently disruptive so as to diminish any legitimate interest in its expression, and thus her expression was not protected."