Rich Township High School - Employee Free Speech Case
In December 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued a decision balancing the First Amendment rights of a school counselor against the public school district's interest in providing effective counseling services - deciding that the school's interest in providing effective counseling outweighed the First Amendment rights of the employee.
In this case, the school guidance counselor brought an action against the school district employer, alleging that he was discharged in retaliation for his speech in violation of the First Amendment. The Court held that the employee's self-published book of adult relationship advice addressed a "matter of public concern," and thus, amounted to protected speech. Although the book was provocative and contained personal information about the employee's own sexual exploits, the book's primary subject of adult relationship dynamics was of interest to a significant segment of the public.
However, the Court held that the district reasonably predicted that the book would disrupt the learning environment because some students who learned of the book's hyper-sexualized content, particularly as it related to counseling services, would be reluctant to seek out the counselor's advice. Therefore, the discharge of the counselor did not amount to retaliation in violation of the First Amendment.
In general, a school district bears the burden of justifying its restriction on its employee's speech in the context of a First Amendment retaliation claim. In evaluating a public employer's asserted interests, in the context of the balancing test used to evaluate a First Amendment retaliation claim, the court focuses on the effective functioning of the public employer's enterprise; interference with work, personnel relationships, or the employee's job performance can detract from the public employer's function, and avoiding such interference can be a strong government interest.
You can view the full decision of the Seventh Circuit Federal Appellate Court by following the link here: Craig v. Rich Twp. High Sch. Dist. 227, 736 F.3d 1110 (7th Cir. 2013)
*Special thanks from the attorneys at Miller, Tracy, Braun, Funk & Miller, Ltd. to Donna M. Davis, who contributed substantial work to the research and drafting of several of the articles in this month's newsletter.