The limitations on the speech of public school teachers borders on the absurd. Earlier this month, a federal court ruled that a Mississippi special-education teacher was not entitled to any First Amendment protections for complaining to the school principal that another teacher had used corporal punishment on an autistic child. A few days after making the complaint, the teacher was informed that her teaching contract would not be renewed.
Under the Supreme Court’s decision, Garcetti v. Ceballos, the speech of government employees made “pursuant to official duties” is not protected under the First Amendment (“Underlying our cases has been the premise that while the First Amendment invests public employees with certain rights, it does not empower them to “constitutionalize the employee grievance.”).
Thus, the judge found that because the teacher’s job included discussing discipline, her speech had been sufficiently connected to her duties enough to merit no protection. In other similar cases, a non-tenured high school teacher who also served as a cheerleading coach was disciplined upon reporting to the principal that the selection process was biased (Gilder-Lucas v. Elmore County Board of Education), and a school psychologist’s contract was not renewed after she wrote letters to the superintendent and helped parents file grievances regarding the failure of the district’s special education program to comply with requirements (Yatsus v. Appoquinimink School District). In Garcetti, itself, the Supreme Court found that a memo written by an assistant prosecutor that raised concerns about possible perjury by police officers was not protected speech under the First Amendment.
Given the amount of communication inherent in their jobs, public school employers seem particularly vulnerable to being censored under Garcetti. Unfortunately, as these cases indicate, such employees are often in the best position to report on matters of public concern. The ensuing – and very likely politically motivated – punishment is likely to chill valuable speech. The fact that these employees largely lack remedy in the law since Garcetti was decided makes it even more imperative that parents, as concerned citizens, protest such arbitrary decisions by school boards. Censoring employees with a conscience eliminates an important check on the government – the very citizens who run it.