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.