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Sub Teacher Says His Rights Were Violated

LOUISVILLE (CN) - A substitute teacher sued his school board, claiming it fired him for photographing and posting online a teacher's lesson plan, with political intent.

Bruce Smith sued the Oldham County Board of Education, its Chief Operations Officer Dorenda Neihof and Director of Personnel Phillip Moore, in Federal Court.

Smith claims he was engaging in speech "on matters of public concern," but the school board suspended and fired him after they "expressed concern that it [the lesson plan] was posted to a site with political implications that might lead people to think the school was advocating some sort of radical political agenda."

Smith began working as a substitute teacher for Oldham County Schools, in Crestwood, Ky., in November 2012, according to his lawsuit.

"On Oct. 11, 2013, Smith served as a substitute teacher at East Oldham Middle School ('EOMS')," the complaint states. "Smith took a picture of the front page of the lesson plan for the day with his cell phone. The lesson plan was a 'WebQuest' on individuals who have worked (or are currently working) for social justice. The lesson plan was developed by Pacific University in Oregon and is publicly available on the Internet.

"Smith sent the photograph of the lesson plan to interested parents in Oldham County, who like Smith, are generally opposed to the 'common core' curriculum being taught in Oldham County Schools. These interested parents, including Smith, have united under a banner they refer to as 'Kentuckians Against the Common Core.'

"When sending the photograph of the lesson plan, Smith commented, 'I thought you would find this interesting.' By commenting and sending the photograph of the lesson plan to parents interested in the curriculum at Oldham County Schools, he engaged in speech on a matter of public concern." (Parentheses in complaint).

Parents forwarded the lesson plan to other advocates against the "common core" curriculum, who discussed and criticized it in blogs and Facebook posts, according to the complaint.

In 2010, Kentucky became the first state to adopt the common core standards, and 40 states followed. The common core content standards in math and English language arts - designed to prepare students for college - were mandated by Kentucky Senate Bill 1, which became law in 2009.

Science standards are expected to be implemented by this fall.

Opponents, including conservative groups such as Kentuckians Against the Common Core, have attacked the science standards on various grounds.

Some say the standards treat evolution as fact rather than theory.

Others claim that the guidelines overemphasize global climate issues while ignoring other areas of science.

Smith says he sent the photo as a concerned citizen, not as an employee of the school. Nevertheless, he claims the school "expressed concern that it was posted to a site with political implications that might lead people to think the school was advocating some sort of radical political agenda."

A high school teacher not involved with the case told Courthouse News he would be "outraged" if a sub, or anyone else, took a photo of his lesson plans and posted it online.

On Dec. 6, 2013, Smith says, he met with Moore and Neihof at their request, the lawsuit states.

"During the meeting, Neihof and Moore initially informed Smith that he was going to be disciplined for 20 school days for having violated an unwritten and undocumented policy that 'what happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom.' On Dec. 10, 2013, however, Neihof terminated Smith's employment instead, outside of the District's own written policy."

Smith claims the board retaliated against him for engaging in speech "on matters of public concern."

He seeks an injunction, reinstatement, lost wages, and damages for constitutional violations.

Smith is represented by Andrew Dutkanych with Biesecker Dutkanych & Macer. Dutkanych did not return a request for comment.

"At this time we have not been served with the lawsuit" the board's Communications Director Tracy Harris said in an email. "We believe the district did not violate Mr. Smith's rights, proper procedures were followed, and we will defend the suit vigorously if and when we are served."

East Oldham Middle School Principal Jim Ross, who is not named as defendant, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Kentuckians Against the Common Core did not respond to a request for comment.

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