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Former Teacher’s Aide Loses Free-Speech Claim

(CN) - The 5th Circuit ruled against a former teacher's aide who claimed she was unconstitutionally barred from discussing her problems with a teacher at a school board meeting in Texas.

The federal appeals court in New Orleans upheld summary judgment for the Liberty Independent School District, but the judges took "a somewhat different path than did the district court."

The lower court had dismissed Julie Fairchild's lawsuit for lack standing, but the 5th Circuit ruled against her on the merits.

School board meetings are "limited public forums," the appellate panel wrote, and boards have a "strong and speech-neutral interest in setting an agenda ... to avoid irrelevant topics or extended contentious debate."

After she was fired, Fairchild sought to publically air her grievances against Jessica Barrier Lanier, the special education teacher with whom she had worked.

Though the school district provided several avenues for Fairchild to protest her firing behind closed doors, its policy prevented her from talking specifically about the teacher during an open meeting of the governing board.

When she was stopped from speaking out against Barrier Lanier during a public comment session in 2005, Fairchild sued the school district in federal court, claiming the district's policy violated her right to free speech.

The district court found for the school, and Fairchild fared no better on appeal.

The school had provided ample opportunity for Fairchild to present her case, the 5th Circuit ruled, adding that a board meeting is properly limited to the "time and topic of the meeting."

"The board did not open the comment session of its agenda to create a dispute resolution forum, anticipating that issues that do arise can be channeled into and heard at one of the board's robust grievance processes," Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote. "This leaves the public ample opportunity to be heard - just not here and now."

This is true, Higginbotham added, so long as the board's policy is "both viewpoint-neutral and reasonable in light of the forum's purpose."

"There is no evidence that the Liberty school board discriminates based on the view or identity of a given speaker," Higginbotham wrote. "A speaker may discuss concerns generally (as Fairchild did), but cannot move to the merits of an extant dispute. To do so could derail the agenda for the meeting and risk unnecessary disclosure of private information about employees or students."

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