PHILADELPHIA (CN) – The Third Circuit heard oral arguments Tuesday in the case of a Pennsylvania teacher who says he was cleared in a misconduct investigation but has been threatened with prosecution if he publicly declares his innocence.
Aaron Martin, an attorney for the anonymous teacher, told a three-judge panel of the Philadelphia-based appeals court that the confidentiality provision of the Pennsylvania Educator Discipline Act violates his client’s right to freedom of speech.
Last year, an investigation into claims of professional misconduct by the teacher, identified as John Doe in court records, yielded no finding of wrongdoing.
U.S. District Court Judge Darnell Jones entered an order against Doe after the investigation concluded, finding that the Educator Discipline Act does not violate the First Amendment by criminalizing a teacher’s disclosure about an investigation into alleged misconduct. The teacher appealed to the Third Circuit.
“How much longer must my client go without being able to talk to his family or his own wife that he has been exonerated without it being a third-degree misdemeanor?” Martin asked the judges Tuesday afternoon.
He argued that his client should be able to disclose that allegations of misconduct lodged against him were baseless. If his client had been found guilty, Martin said, the teacher would be able to speak publicly about the charges.
“The guilty teacher may speak and the innocent teacher is gagged,” Martin said. “He merely wants to be able to recite the historical facts of what happened.”
Martin asked the judges to send the case back to the district court for a hearing on the free-speech restrictions the law allegedly places on his client.
“This clearly suppressed speech and it suppressed speech about the operations of government, which is entitled to strict scrutiny,” the attorney said.
Arguing on behalf of the Pennsylvania governor’s office, Deputy Attorney General Sean Kirkpatrick said letters sent to Doe outlining potential prosecution for speaking out about the investigation were meant to inform, not intimidate, him.
While Kirkpatrick argued that Doe was suing the wrong party and local district attorneys would be the ones responsible for prosecuting him, Martin maintained that comprehensively suing the more than 60 district attorneys in Pennsylvania would be excessive, and that they had correctly sued Governor Tom Wolf.
Kirkpatrick also said that the Educator Discipline Act is vital to teacher and student privacy protection and enables people to report teacher misconduct without fear of repercussion.
“You’ve got a gag order on someone who has been deemed, if not innocent, charges unfounded, and you’re gagging the person from telling whoever he wishes that the cloud that he was laboring under was lifted,” U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman told Kirkpatrick.
“No one knows of the cloud,” Kirkpatrick replied, noting the confidentiality provision.
“This is not the average person the law is meant to gag,” U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Chagares said. “Perhaps we need to have a hearing to determine where the perimeters of that lie.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Eugene Siler, sitting by designation from the Sixth Circuit, also sat on the panel. It is unclear when the judges will issue a decision in the case.