Teacher fired over tweets sues, citing right to free speech | TCTA
Share this page:
Gavel, law books and scales of justice

Teacher fired over tweets sues, citing right to free speech

Share this page:

A teacher was employed by a school district under a continuing contract during the 2018-19 school year. In May 2019, the teacher publicly posted the following tweets on Twitter, which were directed to then-President Donald Trump:

"Mr. President, the school district is loaded with illegal students from Mexico. The High School has been taken over by them. Drug dealers are on our campus and nothing was done to them when drug dogs found the evidence. I contacted the feds here a few months ago and the person I spoke with did not want to help me or even listen to me. The campus police officer spends his time texting on his cell phone and doing the bidding of the Hispanic assistant . . . . . . principal who protects certain students from criminal prosecution. There is fraud being committed and how the Special Education Department on our campus is being run. The District knows about this and turns a blind eye to it. I need protection from recrimination should I report to the authorities but I do not know where to turn. I contacted the Texas Education Agency and then my teacher organization. Texas will not protect whistle blowers. The Mexicans refuse to honor our flag. I do not know what to do. Anything you can do to remove the illegals from my district would be greatly appreciated."

"Mr. President, I asked for assistance in reporting illegal immigrants in the public school system and I received an alarming tweet from someone identifying himself as one of your assistants followed by a second tweet from the same person . . . . . . with the f word used in the dot com. I promptly deleted both tweets and sent a message to Twitter about it. I really need a contact here who should be actively investigating and removing the illegals that are in our public school system. Thank you."

The school district was notified of the tweets on May 29, 2019. That same day, the school district placed the teacher on administrative leave. Also that same day, multiple news outlets began publishing stories regarding the tweets and requesting information from the school.

The school district received multiple emails from concerned current and former students, parents and community members. During the next school board meeting, 14 members of the public spoke about their concerns regarding the tweets during the public-comment portion of the meeting. Their concerns included that students may be kept home from school due to fear created by the tweets and that the tweets could affect students' learning, mental health and general well-being. After hearing public comment, the board voted unanimously to propose the termination of the teacher's contract.

The teacher requested a hearing before an independent hearing examiner, arguing that her tweets were protected free speech under the First Amendment. Following a hearing, the examiner agreed and recommended that the teacher be reinstated. However, the district rejected that recommendation and voted to terminate the teacher's contract. The teacher appealed to the commissioner of education, who ruled that the district had improperly terminated her and ordered that she be reinstated. The district appealed to district court, which held that the board had in fact properly terminated the teacher. The teacher appealed.

In examining whether the teacher's tweets were protected for free speech under the First Amendment, the court of appeals noted that teachers have the right to speak about "matters of public concern." In this instance, the teacher's tweets included expressions of concern regarding immigration, school safety and public employee effectiveness, which are matters of public concern. However, in determining whether the speech was constitutionally protected under the First Amendment, the court must balance the teacher's interests in expressing her concerns with the school district's "interest in performing its services efficiently." In considering that balance, the court considered whether the statement impaired discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, had a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary, or interfered with the regular operation of the school district.

The teacher argued that her tweets were protected free speech because they were made off campus, after work hours, directed to a public official, and that they concerned topics of public concern. The school district argued that the disruption was significant and interfered with the district's interest in operating its schools in an environment in which children feel safe.

The court of appeals noted that the district received numerous forms of communication from the public and the media regarding the tweets and at least two perceived threats. The principal testified that at least one parent wanted to keep her children home from school because of fear caused by the tweets and public reaction to them, there was an in-person community response including 14 individuals speaking out about their concerns of the effects that the teacher's tweets could have on students at a school board meeting, and there was widespread publicity of the tweets by local, national and international media outlets.

The court concluded that although the tweets sought assistance from an elected official and addressed matters of public concern, the tweets created community concern regarding the effect on students' learning, mental health, and general well-being, and resulted in a possible chilling effect that could prevent some children from attending school. Additionally, there were threats and security concerns created by the public outcry. Therefore, the district had evidence to show that the tweets created disruption to the operations of the school district sufficient to terminate the teacher's contract. The court of appeals ruled in favor of the school district and upheld the termination of the teacher's contract.