ATLANTA (CN) — The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up the case of a teacher who was suspended after engaging in an angry debate on Facebook about the Black Lives Matter movement.
Kelly Tucker, a public school teacher in Tift County, Georgia, was posting on Facebook on her own time and on her own computer when she became involved in a debate on Black Lives Matter.
As recounted in court documents, the exchange became heated and racially charged, and after another Facebook user addressed her with an epithet, Tucker posted a lengthy message dismissive of the movement and derogatory of “thugs.”
After learning of Tucker’s post, Tift County school administrators determined the message she posted was offensive, suspended her for five days and required her to participate in diversity training.
Tucker could have filed an administrative appeal, but instead she sued the schools superintendent and the school board chair, claiming that by punishing her, they violated her First Amendment rights.
The case made its way to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which held the school officials were entitled to qualified immunity because they did not violate any clearly established law.
The Georgia Supreme Court did not explain its reasons for not taking up the case, but in a concurring opinion, Justice Nels S.D. Peterson noted the Court of Appeals held the school officials were entitled to qualified immunity because they did not violate any clearly established law.
“I agree that there does not appear to be any clearly established law in this jurisdiction that the school officials violated,” Peterson said.
But while he conceded that point, Peterson went on to warn that Tucker’s right to free speech may well have been violated.
“American courts have long been jealous guardians of the right to free speech. If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable,” Peterson wrote, quoting the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Texas v. Johnson.
“Government employers clearly have authority to control their employees in the course of their employment,” Peterson wrote, “But it is something else entirely to hold that government employers can punish their employees based on viewpoints expressed in private speech, as the school officials did here.”