Appeals Court Says ‘Bye to English Teacher Blogger

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.

Continue reading “Appeals Court Says ‘Bye to English Teacher Blogger”

Appeals Court SWATs Free Speech for Police

On the bright side, at least he’s still alive.

A panel of the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco this week reversed a jury verdict in favor of Brian Hagen, a Eugene Oregon police officer who was removed from the  department’s K-9 team after expressing safety concerns following several  instances involving the accidental discharge of weapons by members of the department’s SWAT team.

The panel ruled that a “public employee [who] reports departmental-safety concerns to his or her supervisors pursuant to a duty to do so ….does not speak as a private citizen and is not  entitled to First Amendment Protection.”

After three instances of accidental discharge of weapons by SWAT team officers in two years, one of which resulted in the actual shooting of a SWAT team member, Hagen became concerned about safety issues related to the K-9 team working with the SWAT team.  When he  repeatedly pressed for information about improvements to the SWAT team’s weapons handling, he was transferred from the K-9 team.

After a trial, a jury unanimously agreed that the City  had deprived Hagen of his First Amendment right to free speech under the U.S. Constitution by retaliating against him for expressing safety concerns. The jury awarded Hagen $50,000 in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitive damages.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled on Dec. 3 that the lower court improperly denied the City’s  motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law. The appeals court reversed the jury verdict, vacated the damages, and remanded the case back to the lower court with instructions to enter judgment in favor of the defendants on each of Hagen’s claims. 

The  appeals court agreed with the City’s  argument that Hagen failed to establish that he spoke as a private citizen, rather than as a police officer who was “required by [the] City and police department to report safety concerns.”

 The appeals court said Hagen was required to express concerns about officer safety internally and within the police chain of command. Therefore, it said, even construing all evidence in Hagen’s favor, Hagen did not act as a private citizen who was  eligible to First Amendment protection.

The case is Hagen v. City of Eugene, Peter Kerns, Jennifer Bills, Thom Eichhorn, No. 12-35492.