The First Amendment took a beating recently when a federal appeals court panel in Philadelphia, PA, upheld the dismissal of an English teacher who wrote a semi-anonymous blog containing satirical observations about modern-day teaching at an affluent suburban high school.
Natalie Munroe was hired in 2006 by Central Bucks East High School in Doylestown, PA, earned tenure, and received excellent evaluations. But she became increasingly frustrated with student behavior, especially with respect to academic integrity and honor, and lack of parental support for teachers. In 2009 she began a personal blog under the name “Natalie M’ that was called, “Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?” The blog was intended for family and friends and had fewer than a dozen subscribers, including Munroe and her husband.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit noted forebodingly in its ruling that “no password was required to access the blog.”
Munroe was suspended after a local reporter asked a school official in February 2011 if he was aware that students apparently were circulating material from the blog on Facebook and other social media. Her suspension led to national media attention that inflamed the controversy. Principal Abram Lucabaugh estimated that 200 parents told the district they did not want Munroe to teach their children. Munroe was fired in June 2012.
In a 2-1 ruling, the appellate panel upheld the dismissal of Munroe’s lawsuit in which she alleged her termination was retaliatory and violated her right to free speech . The majority said public employees are entitled to discuss issues of “public concern” but the state may impose speech restrictions on public employees that are necessary for efficient and effective operations. Although most of Munroe’s 84 blog entries had nothing at all to do with her work, the majority said Munroe’s speech was sufficiently disruptive to the school to diminish any legitimate interest in its expression. The lone dissenter observed the majority had “ducked’ the fact that Munroe’s media appearances and interviews contributed to her discharge and said that a jury should decide whether Munroe’s speech was protected by the First Amendment. He maintained the school district “forfeited its right to match its operational interests against Munroe’s free speech interests” when it waited two years to fire her and failed to transfer her to another school.
The stated reason for Munroe’s dismissal was “incompetency” even though she was obviously a better-than-average English teacher. She was a good writer. Her comments were pointed but funny and thought-provoking. And she cared.
The worst that the school system could come up with was a blog post in which Munroe listed comments she’d like to put in report cards instead of generic phrases like “cooperative in class.” The blog post headline was: “I don’t care if you lick the windows, take the special bus or occasionally pee on yourself … you hang in there sunshine, you’re friggin special.” The majority on the appellate panel said that even if these hypothetical comments were “despicable” even if they were “ intended as part of a comedic exercise.” We’ll never know what a jury would have concluded. Here are the comments:
- Concerned your kid is automaton, as she just sits there emotionless for an entire 90 minutes, staring into the abyss, never volunteering to speak or do anything.
- Seems smarter than she actually is.
- Has a massive chip on her shoulder.
- Too smart for her own good and refuses to play the school ‘game’ such that she’ll never live up to her true potential here.
- Has no business being in Honors.
- A complete and utter jerk in all ways. Although academically ok, your child has no other redeeming qualities.
- Shy isn’t cute in 11th grade; it’s annoying. Must learn to advocate for himself instead of having Mommy do it.
- One of the few students I can abide this semester!
- Two words come to mind: brown AND nose.
- · Gimme an A.I.R.H.E.A.D. What’s that spell? Your kid!
- There is such a thing as too loud in oral presentations. We shouldn’t need earplugs.
- Nowhere near as good as her sibling. Are you sure they’re related?
- I won’t even remember her name next semester if I see her in the hall. Asked too many questions and took too long to ask them. The bell means it’s time to leave! · Has no business being in Academic.
- Lazy asshole.
- Just as bad as his sibling. Don’t you know how to raise kids?
- Sneaking, complaining, jerkoff.
- Frightfully dim.
- Dresses like a street walker.
- Whiny, simpering grade-grubber with an unrealistically high perception of own ability level.
- One of the most annoying students I’ve had the displeasure of being locked in a room with for an extended time.
- Rude, belligerent, argumentative fuck.
- · Weirdest kid I’ve ever met.
- Am concerned that your kid is going to come in one day and open fire on the school. (Wish I was kidding.)
- I didn’t realize one person could have this many problems.
- Your daughter is royalty. (The Queen of Drama)
- Liar and cheater.
- Unable to think for himself.
- I hear the trash company is hiring . . .
- Utterly loathsome in all imaginable ways.
- I called out sick a couple of days just to avoid your son.
- There’s no other way to say this: I hate your kid.