Do Off-Duty Teachers Surrender Their First Amendment Rights?



Teachers have free speech?


Natalie Munroe was an English teacher in a northeastern Pennsylvania high school.


She was in good standing until district parents came across her blog online. Munroe had some very unflattering things to say about some of her her students. “A disgusting brood of insolent, unappreciative, selfish brats,” was one of the more gracious things she called her class, anonymously. She didn’t name her district or single out any students. But parents who discovered the post were incensed.


Off campus but on-line


When school administrators were shown what their faculty member wrote, they sacked her for “conduct unbecoming.”


But her lawyers said there was no official school policy forbidding her from blogging. How could the district legally terminate someone for violating a non-existent policy?


Welcome to the complexities of the First Amendment in the digital age.


Private citizens, public duties


That it was wrong of Munroe to say these things is obvious. It was insulting and cruel. But did she deserve to be fired for it? The core issue at stake is whether public servants surrender their free speech rights while serving.


To continue the paradigm, can a police officer be sacked for a racist posting? That happened to Nebraska Trooper Robert Henderson. No one ever accused Trooper Henderson of misconduct of any kind. It was his words that got him pink slipped. How about Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who claimed that America got what it deserved on September 11? He was ousted as well.


The mission comes first


Those serving the public do have to accept some limits to their rights for the greater good of the mission. A social studies teacher cannot wear a MAGA hat in school. Nor can one wear an “I’m with Her” pin. Teachers must be neutral umpires. To wear a MAGA hat in the front of the room is to imply that only one side is correct.


Students would be intellectually intimidated and thus at a learning disadvantage. Teachers must NEVER politicize their students. Just as students surrender some of their constitutional rights (like warrantless searches of their backpacks) because the school has a greater mission in society, so do teachers. 


Was Natalie Munroe a public servant or a private citizen when she wrote her blog at home?



Free speech intersects employment law


Many teachers sympathize with Munroe. Many teachers become frustrated, and even demoralized, at the behaviors of their students. The truth is, the things Munroe said have been said by teachers about adolescents since schools began. But that was always in the safe space of teachers’ room. The internet is a megaphone to the universe.


In employment law, workers cannot be terminated for exercising constitutional rights. That’s called a “wrongful termination,” and a court can order the employee reinstated, even with retroactive pay. I would argue that in a legal sense she’s correct. But in an ethical sense, I don’t like what she did. Munroe is temperamentally not suited to working with adolescents. Is it a firing offense? No. But we expect better from our teachers.


We all have bad days. We all have to get it off our chest, to vent. But for teachers, you represent the community. You are never really off duty. Same as a police officer; the badge never really comes off. Teachers have an ethical duty to support the common morale. They have the duty to suppress their frustrations with the fulcrum of love for children.



The New York Times Test

If you are a teacher navigating the waters of public duties and private life, I suggest simply “the New York Times test.” Before you hit “send,” “print” or “publish,” ask yourself: would I want my words printed on the front page of The New York Times, with my name, for the whole world to see? If the answer is no, then do not do it.  Students can be punished for off campus speech that’s made online. Consider New Jersey’s harassment and bullying laws on students. The same goes for teachers. Call it the modern-day “Munroe Doctrine.”


For legal eagles, the case is Munroe v. Central Bucks School District et al, 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 14-3509. 

What happened to Munroe?


She was suspended by the district for nearly a whole year while her legal case played out. Eventually, a federal court did order her reinstated, concluding that the district violated her First Amendment rights.


When Munroe reported to work the following year, parents were given the chance to opt their kids out of her classes. Munroe taught that school year, but district administrators evaluated her lessons poorly and she was again terminated from the district in June 2012. This time for weak teaching. She thinks it was an obvious vendetta.


Did you like this post? Share it. But better yet, debate it with the people around you. “Difference of opinion leads to inquiry, and inquiry to truth,” said Thomas Jefferson.