Wednesday, September 16, 2015
The Third Circuit recently upheld a summary judgment finding in a teacher’s retaliation claim after she was discharged after her derogatory comments about students gained national attention. The Third Circuit held that while the teacher’s speech may have touched on a matter of national concern, it caused sufficient disruption for the students and the school district to warrant the teacher’s discharge, and thus speech was not protected under Pickering v. Board of Education. The case arose when a teacher for a Pennsylvania school district, Natalie Munroe, began a blog entitled "Where are we going, and why are we in this hand basket?" In the blog, Munroe discussed personal matters but also complained about her students, her co-workers, and the school where she worked. She did not expressly identify either where she worked or lived, the name of the school where she taught, or the names of her students, but described students as the “devil’s spawn,” and “rat-like.” Students and the school district discovered the blog, and after complaints about Munroe’s professionalism, the school district assigned a “shadow teacher” to teach Munroe’s subject at the same times that Munroe did and allowed students to opt-out of Munroe’s class. Munroe meanwhile became a minor celebrity in the national media because of the views expressed on the blog. Eventually, the school district discharged Munroe, and she brought a retaliation claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the district violated her First Amendment rights. She claimed that her termination based on her private blog and her media interviews. The Third Circuit found that Munroe’s national media interviews did not rise to the level of constitutionally protected expression, finding that “Munroe’s various expressions of hostility and disgust against her students would disrupt her duties as a high school teacher and the functioning of the School District.” The Third Circuit concluded that the district’s interest in eliminating Munroe’s disruptive speech and presence outweighed her “interest, as well as the interest of the public, in her speech.” Munroe v. Central Bucks School District, No. 14-3509 (3d Cir. Sept. 2015) is here.