Students are not the only ones who can be subject to discipline because of social media; their teachers can get into trouble too. Recently the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania rejected a teacher’s first amendment claim following her termination for her negative blog posts about her students.
Natalie Munroe, an English teacher at Central Bucks East High School n Doylestown, PA, started a blog in 2009, entitled “Where are we going, and why we are in this handbasket.” Although her blog largely focused on personal matters, such as her family, yoga class, and her food and film preferences, on a number of occasions she wrote about her students and co-workers.
In 2011 the Doylestown Intelligencer discovered and reported on her blog, which is when it came to the attention of the school administration. In some of her blog posts, Munroe complained about her students, referring to them with terms such as “rat-like,” “jerk,” “dunderhead,” frightfully dim,” and a “whiny, simpering grade-grubber with an unrealistically high perception of own ability level.” She also wrote that the high school parents were “breeding a disgusting brood of insolent, unappreciative, selfish brats.” Following the report on the blog, the teacher was suspended. She later received a series of negative evaluations after she returned to work and was eventually terminated. Munroe sued the school district, seeking reinstatement along with back pay and damages, alleging that the school district had deprived her of her First Amendment rights through harassment and retaliation. The school district responded by filing a motion to dismiss.
U.S. District Judge Cynthia Rufe granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss. Noting that the court was required to balance the interests of the employee, as a citizen, in commenting about matters of public concern, with the interest of the employer in promoting the efficiency of the services it provides, the court denied the plaintiff’s claim of a First Amendment violation.
In determining whether or not the plaintiff’s statements on her blog addressed issues of public concern, Judge Rufe wrote that “far from implicating larger discussions of educational reform, pedagogical methods, or specific school policies, Plaintiff mostly complained about the failure of her students to live up to her expectations, and focused on negative interactions between herself and her students.” Despite the fact that the school district had no policy forbidding teachers from blogging, the court held that an employer, in situations where close working relationships were essential and when the employee’s speech did not involve a matter of significant public concern, the employer “need not wait for the full disruptive impact before taking action.”
The court noted that that the position of a public school teacher “requires a degree of public trust not found in many other positions of public employment.” In finding that the balance of interests did not favor Munroe, the court wrote that Monroe’ blog “contains gratuitously demeaning and insulting language inextricably intertwined with her occasional discussions of public issues.”
The court concluded “whatever public concern she occasionally touched on is subsumed by personal invective; the blog’s overall thrust devalues the discussion of public issues.” Public employees are advised to take note of the court’s opinion. While teachers and other public employees retain their right of free speech, their freedom of speech does not give them an unfettered right to engage in private speech that serves to disrupt the work environment.