NEW ALBANY, Ind. (CN) – A high school journalism class is getting a lesson on the Constitution from a teacher who claims the school suspended her after the school paper printed a story about “the placement and cost of security cameras in the school.”
Kelly Short sued the Greater Clark County Schools, Superintendent Stephen Daeschner and Jeffersonville High School Principal James Sexton, in a whistleblower and constitutional complaint in Federal Court.
Short has taught journalism at Jeffersonville High School since 1994, and oversaw publication of the yearbook and the school newspaper, “The Hyphen.”
The Hyphen story that ticked Sexton off “claimed the system cost $20,000 and that Sexton had four plasma television monitors installed in his office,” according to a Jan. 5 story on the Student Press Law Center website. The Student Press Law Center said it got that information from the former student editor of The Hyphen.
Short says The Hyphen is primarily written and published by her students, and is not funded by Jeffersonville High. She says Sexton reacted to The Hyphen’s “early 2011” story about the security cameras by demanding “that he personally be allowed to review the paper prior to publication in the future,” on pain of reassigning her.
“Defendant Sexton also berated palintiff in front of her students in the middle of class regarding what he characterized as ‘bad information’ he thought plaintiff had given the students regarding his administration,” Short says. She responded by filing a grievance against him, through the union.
The journalism students’ lessons on the Constitution continues in May-June 2011, when “Sexton attempted to discipline certain JHS students for posts they made on the social networking website http://www.facebook.com.
“Plaintiff was outspoken in her belief that the posts made by JHS students were protected by the First Amendment.”
Sexton retaliated in mid-June by trying to yank her from her job as yearbook sponsor, and the additional pay she got from it, then he tried “to remove her from her teaching duties altogether,” Short says.
She says the principal also imposed unconstitutional and illegal policies upon the content of the yearbook and The Hyphen, including prepublication review, by him. She says Sexton’s policy “declared that the newspaper, which is not funded by the school, was not a forum for public expression, and allowed Sexton to unilaterally revise of censor ‘potentially sensitive topics’ and content that is, in his view, ‘biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences.'”
Superintendent Daeschner suspended her on Nov. 9, 2011, on “contrived false and pretextual allegations,” Short says, but actually “in retaliation for her protected speech and activities as outlined above, including her opposition to the illegal policies proposed by the defendants, her union activities, and her support for students who opposed censorship”.
Short seeks compensatory and punitive damages for violations of the First Amendment, of the Indiana Whistleblower Act and violation of public policy. She also wants the school enjoined from enforcing Sexton’s publication policies, reinstatement to her teaching position and her record expunged of the allegedly cooked-up disciplinary actions.
Short is represented by Daniel Canon with Clay Frederick, of Louisville, Ky.
(The school board voted in December not to renew longtime Superintendent Daeschner’s contract, according to Louisville station WDRB Channel 41’s website, though the firing apparently had nothing to do with Short’s complaint. WDRB reported that Daeschner had vocal support from parents and teachers, but the district is facing a $4 million budget deficit.)